The Palmetto Payoff

In the 19th century, sailing ships plying the lucrative China trade out of Baltimore had a harsh but economic way of dealing with crew at the end of a two-year voyage. With the homeport in sight, the captain would use the heavy boom to knock a crewman into the water, thereby banking his pay. It was known as The Baltimore Payoff.

Mitt Romney got the Palmetto Payoff Saturday night, a swift hit upside the head from South Carolina Republicans that shattered his image as the party’s inevitable nominee. His double-digit defeat at the hands of the resurgent Newt Gingrich changed the equation in the Republican race and assured that this already long primary season will continue into the spring. Romney may yet win the nomination, but not without a fight.

Florida is a different ball game, as should be apparent in tonight’s debate on NBC. The Massachusetts Moderate is likely to swing hard at Gingrich, depicting the former Speaker as a failed leader. Gingrich, if he is as smart as he thinks he is, will adopt a more Presidential posture to help wavering Republicans envision him in the Oval Office.

The debates are more than just Reality TV.

They have become the central focus of the campaign in which candidates define or destroy themselves. And for Gingrich, whose campaign is still under-financed, they are the ultimate in free TV. It was no surprise, then, when Gingrich promised on Saturday night to challenge President Obama to seven three-hour debates during the general election campaign. No sitting President would give his opponent such a gift of free exposure, of course, but the prospect enhanced Gingrich’s image as a scrappy fighter willing to confront Obama.

Since we have to wait two more weeks for the Superbowl, tonight’s debate will have to fill the void.

A Class Act

Jon Huntsman withdrew from the Republican Presidential sweepstakes today in the same classy fashion that he conducted it.

He acknowledged the reality of his single-digit standing the the polls in South Carolina, endorsed his fellow Mormon Mitt Romney as the candidate with the best chance of challenging Barak Obama, and preserved his option to run again in 2016, should he choose to. The only embarrassed player in the drama was The State, South Carolina’s largest newspaper, which endorsed Huntsman hours before he withdrew. Next time, the paper’s editorial board had better check its traps before publishing.

Huntsman’s “suspension” of his campaign (a la Herman Cain, no one simply quits a campaign these days,) is a huge boost for Romney. Even if Huntsman was only going to win five or six per cent of the vote in South Carolina, the vast majority of those ballots will go to Romney now, further cementing Mitt’s lock on the nomination.

It is Romney’s to lose now.

A Ticket to Ride?

Jon Huntsman’s third-place finish in New Hampshire, with 17 per cent of the vote, is being characterized by reporters this morning as “disappointing” and “unremarkable.”

I don’t agree.

I think he accomplished a lot in New Hampshire. He climbed into double digits, broadened his appeal, demonstrated surprising support (42 per cent) among those voters who identified themselves in exit polls as Tea Party supporters, improved his style on the stump and actually seemed to be enjoying himself. He even showed a sense of humor here and there.

Huntsman also managed to sharpen his image as a true conservative. He reminded voters that he instituted a flat tax as Governor of Utah, has a strong record as a fiscal conservative and was among the first to voice support for Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan. No liberal, he.

Most importantly, Huntsman remained true to his principles. “I am who I am,” he declared at a rally in Exeter. “I’ve done what I’ve done, and you can take a look at my record. I am not going to contort myself into a pretzel. And I am not going to sign any of these silly pledges.” Take that, Grover Norquist.

He made no apologies for his more moderate positions on climate change and illegal immigration, in contrast to his more wild-eyed competitors. And he defended his service as President Obama’s Ambassador to China, arguing that he was putting his country before party.

Is all this enough to win the Republican nomination? Probably not. He heads today to South Carolina, with its greater proportions of evangelical and deep-vein conservatives. That’s not Huntsman country. But watch closely, if he continues to make progress in the Palmetto state, Florida is next and significantly more hospitable to his brand.

Also, if Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum succeed in their joint efforts to erode Mitt Romney’s image and base, Huntsman will pick up some of the disaffected. He has repeatedly presented himself as the candidate most feared by the Obama campaign. That is true. The Chicago gang doesn’t waste much of its time or money on Huntsman because they don’t think he can gain enough momentum to win the nomination. Not yet.

Arguably, Ron Paul is Huntsman’s biggest obstacle to winning a larger portion of primary votes. Paul’s 23 per cent in New Hampshire was partially at Huntsman’s expense. We will have to see what impact the good doctor has in South Carolina.

A second-place finished in New Hampshire would have caused people to sit up and take notice. But 17 per cent is better than one per cent. Just ask Rick Perry.

Presidential primary campaigns have a way of either enhancing a candidate’s standing and reputation, or diminishing it. Ronald Reagan was taken more seriously as a national figure after 1976, for example, while Senator John McCain’s is less of a voice in his party and in the nation after running so badly (and choosing Sarah Palin) in 2008. A candidate goes up or down once he or she joins the fray, but rarely stays the same.

Jon Huntsman has already enhanced his stature. He was little known outside of Utah and Beijing a year ago. Now he and his beautiful family are widely recognized. Even his critics acknowledge his foreign policy expertise. As demonstrated in New Hampshire, Republicans are starting to give him a look. Is that “disappointing,” or “unremarkable.” Not at all.

Is it “a ticket to ride?” Yes. But how far, remains to be seen.

Here I Go Again….

Anyone with a modicum of common sense, and my record as a political prognosticator, would avoid making any predictions in a campaign as chaotic as the current Republican Presidential nomination sweepstakes. After all, I predicted Carter over Reagan in 1980, Gore over Bush in 2,000, (well, of course, Gore did win that one at the polls,) and Anybody-But-Bush over George W in 2004 (my reasoning that year: Americans are too smart to re-elect anyone who has misled them into an unjustified, unnecessary war.)
But here goes: despite the current Gingrich Boomlet, Mitt Romney will stagger through to the GOP nomination. The agent of Gingrich’s demise: Newt himself. Time and again, he has talked himself into political trouble. One voter in a Peter Hart focus group described Gingrich over the weekend as “careless and combustible.” Hard to put it more succinctly or accurately than that.
I remember interviewing Newt in the mid-1990’s in the Speaker’s expansive suite of offices in the Capitol. He was riding high on the Contract with America, and the new GOP majority in the House. Gingrich spent the entire time lecturing me on his remarkable accomplishments. He was particularly impressed that he was the only Speaker of the House with a Ph.D. His qualifications and innate skills were such, he explained briskly, that a long legislative career lay ahead of him. As it turned out, of course, he crashed and burned politically before he could remake America.
Today’s Newt is a more seasoned, more controlled political operator. He is smart enough to know that his mouth has hurt him in the past and that he must contain his rhetorical flourishes if he is to prevail against the political tortoise, Romney. But his ego won’t let him. His need to demonstrate that he is the smartest guy in the room is too strong. His confident prediction last week that he will be the GOP nominee is an example. “I’ll be the nominee,” he said cheerily, as though it was obvious to anyone with the wit to see the race clearly. Not prudent, as George H.W. Bush would say. Not with the Iowa caucuses looming.
The Obama re-election team seems to agree with this proposition. On the Sunday shows yesterday, David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs separately resisted the temptation to attack Gingrich and reserved their criticisms for Romney. Clearly, they see Mitt as the likely opposition in the general, despite the latest polls. (Of course, privately, they may hope that Gingrich gets the nomination, on the grounds that he will reprise Barry Goldwater’s 1964 performance, but they don’t seem to expect it.)
In one sense, Gingrich’s great strength is his greatest weakness: his unpredictability, his tendency to say whatever passes through his mind. He is not boring, and in this GOP field, that is saying something. Jon Huntsman should know that by now.
Mitt Romney is boring, at times, apparently, even to himself. His visible frustration at having to repeat his defense of his health care program in Massachusetts on Fox last week is a reflection of his own fatigue with the issue and the mind-numbing repetitiveness of the campaign process. But he is steady, and careful and likely, at this point, to prevail.



Fair warning: my record as a political prognosticator is checkered, to say the least.

I established my credentials in 1980 by declaring on live television in the midst of the lopsided Presidential race that…”The American people are not going to elect a failed, B-movie actor to the highest office in the land.”

Since then, I’ve been wrong more often than right.

That said, I have a sense now that the current, confused state of the Republican race is opening an opportunity for Newt Gingrich to move up in the polls. By contrast with the others, he seems confident and experienced in the debates, with his sense of humor intact. I still expect Mitt Romney to bore the Republican electorate into the conclusion that he is their best prospect to defeat President Obama in the general election. He’ll get the nomination eventually, but Newt has a moment here, an opportunity to move up from the second tier of candidates, a chance to be viewed as adult among children.


Because the others are all self-destructing, each in their own distinctive fashion. Can you still spell Tim Pawlenty? Do you still take Michelle Bachman seriously? Can Rick Perry ever be seen as more than a Texas cartoon, all hat and swagger, no cattle? Will Ron Paul ever be a double-digit candidate? Can Jon Huntsman ever gain traction? Why is Rick Santorum still in the race? What is Herman Cain thinking? I think you know the answers.

So that opens the avenue for Newt to move ahead. The Hermanator’s problems are his opportunity. To be sure, Gingrich has his own well-documented capacity for self-destruction. He talks faster than he thinks and often gets in trouble. He certainly has had his own, highly publicized marital history. And he is probably too old to get the votes of many younger voters.

But he has been around the block more than once and it shows in his confident responses in the debates. He won’t likely be the nominee by next spring, much less President, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Republican race become a Romney-Gingrich contest, with Mitt eventually getting the nod.

Remember, you read it here, from the same sage that forecast the 1980 race so accurately.

TERENCE SMITH is a journalist. His website is