Roy Green: Romney likely GOP candidate to face Obama

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As Soviet tanks took control of the streets of Prague during the 1968 populous quest for democracy in Czechoslovakia, a Czech was asked, “Are the Soviets your brothers, or your friends?”

“Our brothers, of course; we choose our friends,” was the reply.

Absent the tanks, but taking note of accusations hurled by Republican Party candidates for the GOP nomination to challenge Democrat Barack Obama for occupancy of the White House, an observer might be excused for remembering the words of that Czech citizen. Remembering them and applying them to Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and, until days before the South Carolina vote, Texas Governor Rick Perry.

At this writing, on the morning following the South Carolina primary with former Congressional Speaker Gingrich erasing the Romney double digit lead to win the Palmetto State, setting the former Massachusetts Governor back on his heels at least momentarily, the damage done to Republicans by Republicans is of a magnitude which must be simultaneously stupefying and gratifying to Democratic strategists.

If they’re grinning from ear to ear who can blame them? A vulnerable President under whose watch the United States economy devolved into metaphorical train wreck territory, being issued a pass to re-election or, at worst, an invaluable boost of political fortunes by would-be opponents so short-sighted and/or driven by malevolent ego they without hesitation, or consideration of consequence formed a circle and began shooting inward.

The GOP contest began civilly enough. In fact, in the early going there were some complaining candidates were too collegial.

The first tentative jabs may have been exchanged between Minnesotans Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann at one of the televised Republican debates in Ames, Iowa. The former Governor was the first to land a blow, suggesting Bachmann had achieved little of significance, adding, “She’s got a record of misstating and making false statements.” The Congresswoman responded by aligning Pawlenty with the President, saying, “You said the era of small government is over. That sounds a lot like Barack Obama if you ask me.” Tame stuff.

Jabs were abandoned in favour of body blows when Texas Governor Perry announced his candidacy mere hours before the Ames debate. Perry’s instant gains began to slide after the others engaged in a gang attack suggesting he knowingly hired illegal immigrants. 

Herman Cain assumed front-runner standing, banking on his business record and lack of Washington insider background. Almost immediately, Cain was confronted by sexual harassment charges as well as a Georgia woman’s claim of a 13-year affair with the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO. Non-stop media coverage resulted in Cain suspending his campaign.

Now it became Romney’s turn. The former Governor was described as an issues flip-flopper by Gingrich, his Mormonism made the radar and his Massachusetts state healthcare program was described derisively as the template for one of the key Democratic administration initiatives Republicans have in their sights, Obamacare.

Gingrich, easily the best debater among the lot, was forced to spend considerable time defending himself from Romney’s claim Gingrich had lined his pockets fronting for Freddie Mac before Freddie turtled financially. The former Governor also took the former Speaker to task for divorcing his dying wife and challenged Gingrich’s moral character by raising his three marriages. Sensitive stuff for Republicans. Rick Perry pounded away at Gingrich with “if you cheat on your wife, you’ll cheat on your business partners.” 

Just weeks earlier Gingrich at a debate had stated, “All of my friends up here are going to repudiate every effort of the news media to get Republicans to fight each other to protect Barack Obama, who deserves to be defeated. All of us are committed as a team. We are all for defeating Barack Obama.” Some team. Some teammates.

Videos were employed to effect. Ron Paul placed Gingrich into the crosshairs piggybacking the suggestion Gingrich’s main concern is his own wallet.

Gingrich’s SuperPAC released Winning Our Future which portrayed Romney as a vulture capitalist and economic predator during his days leading Bain Capital the private equity and venture capital firm. Clearly defensive, Romney’s claims to have operated within the positive principles of capitalism and created massive numbers of jobs during his years with Bain continued to be targeted with Gingrich, his campaign in decline, yet assisted by the floundering and consistently disappointing Perry painting Romney as a corporate gangster.

By now the backrooms of the Republican Party had heard enough. Gingrich was blasted by GOP representatives as acting in an anti-capitalist and reprehensible manner. The former Congressman responded by suggesting his SuperPAC remove any inaccuracies within Winning Our Future and possibly end its run entirely.

That didn’t happen and left wing media, smelling the Republican frontrunner’s blood, happily tagged onto Gingrich and Perry’s portrayals of Romney as a corporate thug, implying Republicans would, after all, know other Republicans best.

The bonanza of useful material for Democratic Party strategists showed no sign of abating. 

Should the Occupy Wall Street movement return with the warmer weather, the Obama re-election team will be able to fuel OWS sentiment to its advantage without offering direct support, simply by running its own ads featuring the Gingrich and Perry assaults on Romney, augmented by clips from Winning Our Future.

This tactic began to take shape in the middle of January, as Democrats issued a release challenging Romney’s business history. “Corporate raider” is how the Obama campaign identifies the Republican they remain most likely to face.

The tactical response was to compare the former Governor’s pre-politics record at Bain to that of Obama’s work as a community organizer. As Governor of Massachusetts, Romney says he left the state with an unemployment rate of 4.7 per cent and adds, “We balanced the budget every year I was in office. We reduced taxes 19 times and put in place a rainy day fund of more than $2 billion.”

As the days before the South Carolina primary wound to a close, Ron Paul, who had drawn boos from a debate audience in the state, issued the ad Democrats may prize more than any other. It describes Rick Santorum as “another counterfeit conservative who opposes right-to-work, massively increased spending and funded Planned Parenthood.” Newt Gingrich is on the receiving end of “serial hypocrite who lobbied for Freddie Mac before the housing crisis and for the individual mandate before Obamacare.” Romney is painted as a “flip-flopper who has been on all sides, supported TARP bailouts and provided the blueprint for Obamacare.”

It is the Newt Gingrich victory in South Carolina which might serve to refocus Republican candidates. Gingrich whose personal and political baggage had him, to use an unkind metaphor, tagged and bagged on separate occasions, proved himself a political Lazarus; times two. 

Gingrich received his greatest assist from an ABC News interview with the former Speaker’s second wife Marianne, aired days prior to the final South Carolina candidates’ debate moderated by CNN’s John King. Marianne Gingrich had spoken of being offered the choice of an open marriage, with her husband continuing an affair with his current spouse Callista, or divorce. 

When King’s first debate question raised the Marianne Gingrich accusation, the former Congressman’s fiery reply instantly became the stuff of political legend. 

John King: “As you know, your ex-wife gave an interview to ABC News and another interview to the Washington Post. And this story has now gone viral on the Internet. In it, she says that you came to her in 1999, at a time you were having an affair. She says you asked her, sir, to enter into an open marriage. Would you like to take some time to respond to that?” 

Newt Gingrich: “No, but I will. I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.” 

The candidate pounded away with lines like, “To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary a significant question for a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine. My two daughters wrote the head of ABC and made the point that it was wrong, that they should pull it, and I am frankly astounded that CNN would take trash like that and use it to open a presidential debate.” 

The applause was deafening, the remainder of the debate irrelevant and the Gingrich campaign back in gear. The debate bonanza the former Speaker reaped should not be lost on Romney, Santorum and Paul. Voters love passion and in a long campaign only your opponent doesn’t tire of your constant infighting. 

Conventional wisdom suggests Romney will eventually prove to be the Republican candidate. Whether or not conventional wisdom proves to be accurate, the Obama re-election team has an abundance of useful election material.

An interesting debate question might still well be, “Are your fellow Republican candidates your brothers, or your friends?”

Roy Green is a contributor to the National Post and the host of the Roy Green Show, a national program weekends on the Corus radio network.

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