Politics » Politics Feature

Passing Glory

Thoughts on the GOP primary campaign as it meandered through Tennessee.



Whatever the results of this week's Super Tuesday primary elections in 10 states, the one certainty is that Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, will still be running, and his three Republican opponents — former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and Texas congressman Ron Paul — will still be trying to flag him down.

As this week began, what had been a two-to-one Santorum lead over Romney in polls of likely Tennessee voters was melting — partly due to Romney's consecutive victories in Michigan, Arizona, and Washington state and partly due to an inexplicable series of campaign boners on Santorum's part.

Even as he was about to take over the undisputed lead among Republicans nationally, some three weeks ago, Santorum unaccountably committed a couple of unforced errors that gave pause even to the Tea Party types and ultraconservatives who had flocked to his standard — not to mention to the middle-of-the-roaders who had been impressed by Santorum's reasonably articulated proposals to revive American manufacturing.

It is one thing to paint Barack Obama, an over-cautious would-be centrist, as the linear descendant of Karl Marx; it is quite another to launch a full-on assault against the late John F. Kennedy, revered as a martyr by Republicans as well as Democrats. Yet that is precisely what Santorum chose to do, saying that he had been made "sick to my stomach" by the historic 1960 speech by then presidential hopeful Kennedy, a Catholic, to Protestant ministers in Houston — a speech which posited a firm separation between church and state.

As it happens, this was — and presumably still is — the predominant attitude of American evangelicals.

That boner was closely followed by another one, wherein Santorum attacked Obama as a "snob" for giving lip service to the idea — a staple of the American dream, really — that a college education should be within reach of as many young Americans as possible. The ex-senator, a Penn State graduate himself, went on to talk in conspiracy-theory terms of the "indoctrination" that lay in wait for the unwary innocents about to enter academe.

If the Santorum boom has indeed crested, it could well be that it was those two reversions to the dark forebodings of Santorum's "man-on-dog" past that, as much as anything else, undermined what had looked at various points to be a promising campaign.

The former senator cannot be faulted for inattention to Tennessee, however. Within the past two weeks, he visited the state repeatedly. And he came to Memphis on Sunday, where, among other things, he paid homage, at Corky's on Poplar, to the city's "authentic Memphis barbecue."

While here, Santorum assayed the race candidly, saying in part, "I think we're doing fine. But look, every time we get into these races, as you've seen, Governor Romney goes out there and out-spends us 4 or 5 or 6 to 1. It's going to take a toll, and it's happening in pretty much all the states. ... This narrative that Governor Romney is the guy that can beat Barack Obama — the only reason Governor Romney's winning in these early states is because he's out-spending his opponents 4 or 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9 to 1.

"That's not going to be the case in the general election. He's not going to have that huge money superiority, and at some point he has to have a vision and a campaign that's connecting with people."

That was fairly astute as an estimate of both the high side and the low side of Romney's prospects.

Romney himself did not include Memphis on his Super Tuesday itinerary, leaving it to surrogates like Governor Bill Haslam and state economic development director Bill Hagerty to make the case here on his behalf.

Romney had been to Memphis in the run-up to his unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign, however, and, when I encountered him on the stump in Iowa that year, he was regaling his audience about the experience. Here's how it appeared online in the Flyer on January 3, 2008:

"Numerous observers of the current presidential campaign have noticed what might politely be called a political evolution on the part of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Known as something of a moderate when he served as that New England state's chief executive — among other things, he promoted a universal health-care plan and acquiesced in civil-union status for gay couples — Romney now runs as a bedrock conservative.

"On the eve of the first actual vote in Iowa, whose crucial caucuses are being held on Thursday evening, Romney has adopted — shades of Richard Nixon — what might even be called a 'Southern strategy.' Undoubtedly mindful of a serious recent challenge from former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee to his once unchallenged lead in this Midwestern state, Romney has been unloading down-home rhetoric on his audiences with both barrels.

"Take this Wednesday night appeal, made to a sizeable crowd at the Hy-Vee corporate conference center in West Des Moines: 'The first time it mattered where I came from in this political season was in Memphis, Tennessee. And someone, thankfully, had made up T-shirts for me and for my supporters there. And they say: "Yankee Governor" — that's not a good start in Memphis — and down below it said "Southern Values."

"'And as I asked people what they meant by Southern values, you know what they mean by Southern values. Again: Love of family, love of God and love of country, and love of hard work, love of opportunity. And so I said, yeah, I got Southern values. And then you come out here. Those are heartland values. That's what you call them here.'

"Although Romney focused somewhat on his managerial background — he touted his organization of the Utah winter Olympics in 2002 and had gold-medal skater Dan Jansen on hand for the occasion — he weighed in most heavily with some serious patriotic fustian.

"Disdaining Democrat John Edwards' refrain of 'two Americas,' Romney scoffed, 'We are one America. We are a nation united that stand behind our fighting men.' And, perhaps looking beyond Iowa to his next major challenge next week in New Hampshire, where a resurgent John McCain, a supporter of the war effort in Iraq, is his major worry, Romney laid it on this way: 'We also love our president, who has kept us safe these last six years.'"

Romney would go on to lose to Huckabee in Iowa and to McCain in New Hampshire, where, in a multi-candidate forum, McCain ridiculed Romney, then as now stigmatized by his rivals as a "flip-flopper," this way: "We disagree on a lot of issues, but I agree, you are the candidate of change."

As McCain became the undisputed front-runner in 2008, Romney would read the handwriting on the wall and withdraw from the race after that year's Super Tuesday primaries, though he had won a few of the primaries that day (and had been endorsed as "the clear conservative candidate" by a former Pennsylvania senator named Rick Santorum).

This time around, of course, it has been Santorum (and Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul and, backaways, Rick Perry and Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann et al.) chasing Romney, and not Romney's chasing McCain or anyone or anything else except maybe his own personal history.

In a rally last week, Hagerty seemed to be suggesting that the media were keeping Santorum and Gingrich in the race. Haslam disagreed: "When you're in our shoes, you're always wishing the media would have a different spin on things, but I honestly think it's a case of Romney's having to win this the hard way. ... I'm one of those who thinks that's not necessarily a bad thing. ... I think a tough primary can be a real proving ground. ... I do think the media loves a race. I think there's times they want to see the underdog come up."

And, speaking of underdogs, at press time Newt Gingrich was apparently making a late surge in Tennessee and perhaps elsewhere. Should he somehow revive his presidential hopes, it would indeed be an underdog comeback for the books.

It needs to be said, of course, that Gingrich's billionaire benefactor, Sheldon Adelson, may be the one who really packs a punch. But Newt, bless him, is fun to listen to. In a scripted age, he seems to be thinking it all out for himself — crazy, sane, or whatever.

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