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.

The Voice of Reason: Ron Paul?

I know Ron Paul can be zany, especially when it comes to abolishing the Fed, returning to the gold standard and reducing the federal government to a mom-and-pop-sized enterprise.

He certainly has his eccentricities, such as refusing to wear a seat belt in a car, or a helmet when bicycling, both of which he apparently regards as nanny-state interferences in his constitutionally-protected right to kill himself.

But in last night’s Republican debate, when his fellow candidates were falling over themselves in declaring their willingness to bomb Iran back to the stone age, he was the grown-up, the one voice that warned that what they were talking about would be “another Iraq,” or worse. He also repeated his call to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and generally to avoid meddling in other nations’ affairs.

Later, when Newt Gingrich was rolling out his idea for Congress to subpoena federal judges who make controversial rulings, and Michelle Bachmann was cheering him on, it was Ron Paul who spoke up and reminded the former Speaker that the constitution has this thing about separation of powers.

Watching at home, I suddenly found myself agreeing with Ron Paul. Ron Paul! He was making sense while the others on the stage were coming unhinged one-by-one. And I was nodding in agreement! Fortunately, no one saw me. My wife was wrapping Christmas presents and the dogs were sleeping. I switched off the set and watched a re-run of The League on my iPad and felt better right away.

The Republican debates can do that to you. I find myself talking back to the television set, laughing and shaking my head. Imagine how Republican contributors feel watching this gong show. Last night’s, the 16th in this series of reality shows, apparently was the last before the Iowa caucuses, now that Donald Trump has withdrawn. Finally, we’ll get to hear from some voters.

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.

My Republican Friends

My Republican Friends…

…are embarrassed by the field and the foibles of the current crop of Republican candidates for the party’s presidential nomination.

My Republican friends — and I do have them — are past patience with the Hermanator, who can’t seem to recall the difference between Libya and other Arab states, what he is for and what he is against. All he knows is that whatever President Obama did with that country, wherever it is, was wrong, and The Herman would have done better. His brain freeze with the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is only the latest evidence of his lack of preparation and credentials for the top job. Never mind the sexual harassment accusations, serious as they may be. The Presidency is not a starter job in politics, with the notable exception of Dwight Eisenhower.

My Republican friends have taken to laughing, bitterly, about Rick Perry. Not only his erratic performance in New Hampshire, not only his inability to remember the third federal department he wants to eliminate (he need only have referred to his own stump speech for a clue.) It is the whole Perry package: the walk, the talk, the hair, the Texas twang, the whole deal. That dog won’t hunt, as they like to say in Austin, not after W, and my Republican friends know it.

My Republican friends have already dismissed Rick and Ron and Michelle and Sarah and when I ask them about Newt, they tend to sigh. “Ah, Newt,” they say, “so bright, so gifted, but no, we can’t have Newt, not after the checkered marital history, the questionable money-making schemes.” Sadly, they say, Newt’s too old, his moment is past. Newt, we hardly knew ye. Jon Huntsman? Terrific guy, really knows his foreign policy, great daughters, why doesn’t anyone notice him? David Petraeus? Now, there is a general! A regular Ike. But is he even a Republican? Anyway, he just got a new job, for Obama, of all people, and its too late to start in Iowa, with the caucuses just a couple of months away.

My Republican friends then turn to Mitt. They just look blank for a moment. Well, yes, of course, there’s Mitt (there’s always, Mitt, or at least it seems that way.) Fine guy, great family, did a hellova job with the Olympics. The Massachusetts thing? Well, he was just doing what he had to do to govern that hopelessly blue state. We can count on Mitt to do the right thing, or at least the thing he needs to do to get nominated. “He’s our guy,” my Republican friends say. “He’ll be great.

“Won’t he?”

TERENCE SMITH is a journalist. His website is



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