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Government is serious. Democracy is sacred. And then there is politics the way it is actually played. The Vote blog looks at politics the way the players talk about it among themselves after work.

Republican presidential candidate, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and his wife Mary Kaye arrive for a New Hampshire primary night party in Manchester, N.H., Tuesday. Huntsman did OK in the New Hampshire primary results, finishing a distant third. (Charles Krupa/AP)

New Hampshire primary results: Is Jon Huntsman toast? (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.11.12

Jon Huntsman Jr. did OK in Tuesday’s New Hampshire Republican primary. A late surge of support carried his percentage of the vote into the double digits. He finished third, behind Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, and in a speech Tuesday night he tried hard to portray that result as evidence of a gathering storm of Huntsmentum.

“Third place is a ticket to ride! South Carolina, here we come!” said President Obama’s former ambassador to China.

But Mr. Huntsman in essence bet his whole race on the New Hampshire outcome, focusing all his time and dwindling cash on the Granite State. He finished a distant third, despite some hints in prevote polls that he might catch Representative Paul for second. Another Mormon ex-governor – Mr. Romney – was the night’s big winner. Is the Huntsman campaign toast?

A look inside the New Hampshire results shows that Huntsman’s future on the campaign trail may not be a bright one. The former Utah chief executive has stressed his electability on the stump, but he won only 9 percent of New Hampshire voters who said in exit polls that the ability to defeat President Obama was the top attribute they wanted in a Republican candidate. Romney got 62 percent of those votes.

Nor was he the choice of self-described moderates. Romney won the largest share of those voters, too, with Paul second. In fact, the only category of voters who went Huntsman on Tuesday was Democrats, who were able to vote in New Hampshire’s open primary. Huntsman took 41 percent of them. That’s not a base on which a winning run at the GOP nomination is built.

Huntsman began his campaign hoping to be the establishment alternative to Romney, but Romney so far hasn’t stumbled and seems to have the Romney vote sewed up. Lately, Huntsman has toughened his rhetoric and shifted rightward, but that part of the field remains crowded. It seems unlikely that a patrician fan of Captain Beefheart is going to outmaneuver Rick Santorum and Rick Perry for the conservative vote.

“His boosters hope that [Huntsman’s] surprising third-place finish will help bring in some more financial support, but there’s still not much evidence he has a path to the nomination,” wrote Politico’s Maggie Haberman Wednesday morning.

Plus, Huntsmentum is about to hit a palmetto wall in the next primary state, South Carolina.

Where New Hampshire is quirky and libertarian, South Carolina is more evangelical and reliably conservative. Last time around, in 2008, only 18 percent of voters in the South Carolina GOP primary described themselves as independent. Almost 70 percent self-identified as conservative.

“South Carolina is essentially a non-starter for Jon Huntsman,” writes the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin Wednesday on her conservative blog “Right Turn.”

The prediction market Intrade now puts Huntsman’s chances of winning the GOP presidential nomination at 1.9 percent. That’s  ... very low. His personal wealth can keep Huntsman going, if he chooses to tap it. He could wait out a primary or two to see if Newt Gingrich’s and Rick Perry’s attacks on Romney as a heartless buy-out capitalist damage the front-runner. But right now he might be thinking as much about positioning himself for a possible run in 2016, if Mr. Obama wins reelection, as about the 2012 race.

Election 101: Ten facts about Jon Huntsman and his presidential campaign 

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Rep. Ron Paul speaks with voters in a closed gathering on a campaign swing for the republican presidential primary through Hollis, New Hampshire, Monday. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor)

Why Ron Paul is defending Mitt Romney after the 'fire people' remark

By Staff writer / 01.10.12

Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian iconoclast, and Mitt Romney, the establishment favorite, are hardly bosom buddies. So why is the Texas congressman defending the former governor of Massachusetts over a quote that other Republican candidates (and Democrats) are taking wildly out of context?

Simple: Representative Paul wants to come in second in the New Hampshire primary.

Mr. Romney is expected to win the Granite State going away. So the big news Tuesday night will be who wins the silver. Duking it out for second place are Paul and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. Mr. Huntsman, in particular, has been going after Romney for saying that he “likes to fire people.” But Romney didn’t really say that.

Here’s what Romney actually said, in context: “I want individuals to have their own [health] insurance. That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep you healthy. It also means if you don’t like what they do, you can fire them. I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.... You know, if someone doesn’t give me a good service, then I want to say, ‘I’m going to go get someone else to provide that service to me.’”

At 3:15 on Tuesday afternoon, with just a few hours until the New Hampshire polls close, the Paul campaign put out a statement on what it called a “feigned controversy.” In addition to Huntsman, it rapped the knuckles of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for good measure.

Oh and by the way, Paul isn’t such a big fan of Romney after all. He just wants to see him treated fairly.

Rick Santorum, Jon Huntsman, and Newt Gingrich are once again proving why they are unfit to be President and why this has become a two man national race between Mitt Romney, the candidate of the status quo, and Ron Paul, the candidate of real change,” national campaign chairman Jesse Benton said in the statement.

“Two important issues that should unite Republicans are a belief in free markets and an understanding that the media often use ‘gotcha’ tactics to discredit us,” the statement continued. “Rather than run against Governor Romney on the issues of the day Santorum, Huntsman, and Gingrich have chosen to play along with the media elites and exploit a quote taken horribly out of context.”

Mr. Benton also turned his sights on the “liberal left,” accusing the other candidates of adopting its tactics to take down another Republican.

Huntsman, Mr. Santorum, and Mr. Gingrich are doing so, Benton said, “because they can't run on their questionable records and can't distinguish themselves from Romney.”

Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist who is neutral in the nomination race, says that Paul’s goal of placing second in New Hampshire is all about maintaining momentum heading into the contests in South Carolina and Florida – both states where he is losing ground in polls.

“If someone other than Ron Paul captures second place (i.e., Huntsman), Paul will almost completely fade from the GOP conversation,” says Mr. O’Connell in an e-mail. “For Paul, it is mostly about staying relevant.”

ELECTION 101: Ten things to know about Ron Paul

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Republican presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum speaks at a Republican Party fundraising dinner in Greenville, South Carolina Sunday. (Mary Ann Chastain/REUTERS)

South Carolina test: How GOP rivals could derail a Romney coronation

By Staff Writer / 01.09.12

Most of the attention in the GOP nomination battle is focused on New Hampshire right now, but the more decisive vote may be happening more than a week later, in South Carolina.

There's little suspense in New Hampshire about who will win. (The answer is Mitt Romney, in case you've been living under a rock recently.) The only question is who will win second place and how Mr. Romney's opposition ends up outperforming or underperforming their expectations.

South Carolina, meanwhile, could provide the decisive vote that makes a Romney victory inevitable – or it could forecast a race that stretches out over several more months.

The state has voted for the eventual winner in every GOP primary season since 1980, and is generally a better barometer than either Iowa or New Hampshire.

As Katon Dawson, the former South Carolina GOP chairman and a Rick Perry adviser, has been fond of saying lately: "Iowa picks corn, New Hampshire picks campaigns' pockets, and South Carolina picks GOP presidents."

So what are some of the things to watch for in the lead-up to the Jan. 21 vote?

Will Rick Perry play a spoiler role?

The Texas governor finished fifth in Iowa and considered dropping out of the race. But he's decided to go back and bank everything on South Carolina, where he launched a 15-day tour on Sunday – and no one is happier about that than Romney.

He's making a big play, in particular, for Christian voters – the same voters who are part of Rick Santorum's base. No one expects Governor Perry to actually launch a comeback (right now, he's averaging about 5 percent in state polls), but if he connects with voters he could manage to siphon off enough support from Mr. Santorum and Newt Gingrich to help Romney to a decisive victory.

Will either Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich emerge as a strong alternative to Romney?

Or will they neutralize each other?

Ultimately, the only possibility for a non-Romney nominee rests in the faction of the GOP that dislikes him (perhaps the majority of the party) being able to coalesce around an alternative. With Santorum and Mr. Gingrich duking it out – and Perry possibly taking some of those votes as well – that becomes increasingly unlikely.

Right now, Santorum and Gingrich are essentially tied in South Carolina polls at about 20 percent, with Romney leading with about 30 percent. But polls can change fast. Santorum is still hoping for a strong finish in New Hampshire and the chance to sell himself to South Carolina voters as the only viable Romney alternative.

“I think the role of South Carolina is to narrow this thing down to two candidates, Mitt Romney and one other candidate," John Brabender, Santorum's chief strategist, told Politico. "We hope that’s Rick Santorum."

Gingrich's team, of course, is also hoping that South Carolina narrows the field, but in Gingrich's favor.

Can Jon Huntsman be a factor?

The former Utah governor is surging in New Hampshire right now, but it's not clear if he's doing so in time to score an upset (and his coming in second, over Ron Paul, would be a big upset). If he does, South Carolina will be a challenge for him. He's currently polling in the low single digits, and is hardly a natural sell to more conservative Southern voters. He also hasn't had the money to really campaign there.

But, unlike in some other states, independent voters can participate in South Carolina's primary. And if Huntsman does well in New Hampshire and continues to gain momentum, it's possible that he could grab some Romney votes from independents and moderate Republicans.

It may be tough for Huntsman to continue without as much money as his opponents, but his hope is that as the field narrows, he'll remain as yet another alternative to Romney, but one who appeals to moderate Republicans.

What about Ron Paul?

Ron Paul, who performed so well in Iowa and looks poised for another good showing – likely a second-place finish – in New Hampshire, may have a tougher time in South Carolina.

Right now he's polling at about 10 percent, about half the support he's getting in New Hampshire.

Still, Paul is planning to head to South Carolina within hours of knowing the result in New Hampshire, and is hoping to campaign hard and get significant votes.

"South Carolina will be a nice test for us, because it’s a bigger state and if we do well there, that will encourage the fundraising and it alerts other people to the message," he told Reporters in New Hampshire over the weekend.

Can Romney score a knock-out victory?

This, of course, is the ultimate prize Romney is hoping for in South Carolina.

If he can win in three consecutive states – and ones with very different electorates – then it becomes harder for any of his opponents to make their case, or to stand a chance in the Florida primaries on Jan 31.

Moreover, a decisive victory would show that Romney can win over even Southern Republicans in the heart of GOP territory.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley – hardly an establishment figure herself, and an unlikely Romney supporter – has endorsed him, and is predicting a Romney victory.

And John McCain, who won in South Carolina in 2008, is predicting a Romney coronation. “He’s going to win in New Hampshire, and it’s going to come down, my friends, as it always does, to South Carolina," he told voters at a rally there last week. 

Still, Romney is a hard sell to many South Carolina voters, who are suspicious of his tenure as a Massachusetts governor and his health care program there, his wealth, and his Mormonism. In 2008, he won just 15 percent of the primary vote.

And his rivals are hitting him hard, going after, in particular, his record at Bain Capital.

Gingrich, Perry, and Huntsman are all attacking him on that front, emphasizing Romney's ties to Wall Street and mocking his statements that he knows what it's like to worry about being fired.

“If you are a victim of Bain Capital’s downsizing it is the ultimate insult for Mitt Romney to say he feels your pain when he caused it," Rick Perry told South Carolina voters at an event Monday morning.

It remains to be seen if those attacks can have an effect, or if Romney can score a decisive victory in South Carolina (helped by a split opposition field with no clear alternative emerging) and sail on to an even more conclusive victory in Florida.

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Sarah Palin, former GOP vice presidential candidate, talks with her daughter Piper, who is sitting behind her father, Todd Palin, at the Rolling Thunder ride from Pentagon last Memorial Day weekend in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP/File)

Todd Palin endorses Newt Gingrich. Is Sarah next?

By Staff writer / 01.09.12

Todd Palin has endorsed Newt Gingrich, if you haven’t heard. ABC News broke this story earlier today. The former Alaska First Dude said everybody in the GOP race was fine, but that he admired the way Mr. Gingrich had soldiered forward following the resignation of his staff last summer.

Gingrich’s campaign has “burst out of the political arena and touched many Americans,” Mr. Palin told ABC.

Of course, Palin père had not actually talked to the Gingrich team before giving them the nod, which is, um, unusual in endorsement politics. But the ex-speaker quickly said that he’s proud to have the endorsement of the world-class snowmobiler who happens to be Sarah Palin’s husband.

“Honored to be endorsed by Todd Palin. President Obama has failed. We need a Bold Reagan Conservative in the White House,” tweeted Newt.

Does this matter? Twitter was aflame with humor about this move on Monday, with many jokes running along the lines of, “Bet this wraps up the South Carolina snow machine vote,” or “Todd Palin endorses Newt: Hopes to be Secretary of Duct Tape.”

Ha ha. We’re here to say it matters more than you think. OK, maybe it’s not a huge deal, but it has some significance. Otherwise Gingrich, who is a pretty shrewd guy, would just have let the accolade drop unanswered.

The point to be made here is in fact relatively obvious: Gingrich hopes to equate Todd’s nod with Sarah. A Palin endorsement would be a big help for someone whose campaign could be ended by a poor showing in South Carolina. It would give Gingrich more tea party bona fides in his competition with Rick Santorum for the non-Mitt Romney primary slot.

Sarah Palin herself has been coy about an endorsement. Recently she even warned the GOP against alienating Ron Paul’s voters, lest the Texas libertarian bolt and mount a third-party bid. It’s possible she won’t endorse anyone, or is holding off until she sees whether social conservatives rally around a single candidate in their effort to deny Mr. Romney the nomination.

Endorsements matter, after all. As New York Times polling analyst Nate Silver points out, they are important measures of party and institutional support. They may not win votes per se, but they communicate a candidate’s relative strength to the media and political insiders.

And in Mr. Silver’s rough listing of how important endorsements are, the nod of former national candidates ranks as high as any. (No, we know she didn’t run this year – she was a VP candidate in 2008. Remember?)

According to Washington Post political blogger Chris Cillizza, the most important kind of an endorsement is a symbolic one, such as Ted Kennedy endorsing Barack Obama in 2008. Mr. Obama touted Mr. Kennedy’s backing as evidence that he was the candidate of the old guard, true Democrats. A Palin endorsement might have something of the same cachet on the GOP side.

Are we getting ahead of ourselves here? Todd may have been freelancing. Right now, he may be getting in trouble with his wife. But it’s hard to not see him as a stand-in for Sarah, providing Gingrich with a sort of semi-Palin endorsement that allows the former Alaska governor to still stand somewhat outside the current Republican contest.

RECOMMENDED: Newt Gingrich: 8 of the GOP idea man's more unusual ideas

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Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney speaks before the Nashua Chamber of Commerce in Nashua, New Hampshire on Monday, one day before New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary election. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Anti-Romney ads on Bain Capital: Whose is toughest? (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.09.12

Mitt Romney’s opponents are lining up to attack him over his time as head of Bain Capital, in case you haven’t heard. They’re going to accuse him of bankrupting companies, throwing people out of work, and generally behaving like Gordon Gekko, the amoral Michael Douglas character from the flick “Wall Street.”

It’s the “Bain bomb,” according to Politico – the long-awaited moment when Mr. Romney’s foes will try to paint him as the sort of privileged money guy who created the financial meltdown, as opposed to a skilled private-sector job creator.

“If he ends up looking more like an opportunist who profited for the few, instead of a man who created jobs for the many, it’s hard to imagine his poll numbers won’t drop,” write Politico’s Reid Epstein and Jim VandeHei.

Whose ads here are toughest? We’ll start with the Democratic National Committee, which is already eyeing the ex-Massachusetts governor as President Obama’s most likely opponent. Theirs are, well, sort of mild salsa.

The DNC’s “Mitt’s Bogus Math,” uploaded Sunday on YouTube, focuses exclusively on a number – specifically, the 100,000-plus jobs Romney has said Bain created. It’s a fairly standard ad, containing quotes from experts and analysts holding that this figure does not include jobs lost in corporate takeovers but rather counts jobs created long after Bain was no longer associated with such firms as Sports Authority and Staples.

As a bonus, the ad features two clips of ABC News hound George Stephanopoulos interrogating Romney (or, rather, it features the same clip, twice). How many people have forgotten today that Mr. Stephanopoulos used to be a top aide to President Clinton? Just asking.

However, the DNC does have the resources to react quickly – a plus for them. So they’ve already posted video of Romney’s infelicitous quote from Monday, in which he said at a New Hampshire appearance, “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.”

The context here was Romney talking about health insurance, and how consumers should be able to fire their insurance firm and seek a better alternative.

But the DNC is not Romney’s biggest threat at the moment. No, that would be Newt Gingrich, who is mad and is not going to take it anymore.

A pro-Romney "super political-action committee" hammered the ex-speaker with negative ads in Iowa, and now a pro-Gingrich super PAC is going to return the favor. This group, named Winning Our Future, plans to spend more than $3 million running harsh ads that link Romney to Bain’s activities. It’s already put up a website called King of Bain, which gives you a taste of the manner in which it is addressing this question.

And boy, the ads promise to be the toughest thing that the 2012 campaign has seen yet (with the possible exception of some of Ron Paul’s surprisingly aggressive attacks on pretty much everyone). Winning Our Future says it’s going to put up a 45-minute video about the whole Bain thing, and if the two-minute teaser it's already released is any guide, they’re going to be wearing helmets and flak jackets in Romney HQ after the video comes out.

The ad, titled “When Mitt Romney came to town,” is already up on the King of Bain site. It starts with generic morning-in-America gauziness. Then an American flag suddenly turns black and white, the scary music comes up, and you know the villain of the piece is about to appear.

“In the wrong hands, the American dream can turn into nightmares,” says the ad’s narrator.

Staged shots of fat cats smoking cigars and briefcases full of money follow. And then the ad swerves to clips of interviews with middle-aged to elderly folks, many of them women, who apparently lost jobs at Bain-owned firms.

“That hurt so bad – to leave my home because of one man that’s got 15 homes,” says one teary woman, referring to the multi-housed Romney.

Ouch – that’s tough stuff. Another woman says, “I feel that is the man that destroyed us.” And so forth.

What was Romney’s tenure at Bain really like? A full examination of that would probably require book-length treatment. But The Wall Street Journal took a first cut at it on Monday, and it concluded that there’s something in his Bain record to support the assertions of both his supporters and critics.

On the one hand, the rate at which firms that Bain invested in ran into trouble appears to be higher than the average for similar investment firms of the time, according to the WSJ. At least 22 percent of Bain’s firms closed their doors or filed for bankruptcy within eight years of Bain’s first investment.

On the other hand, Bain was putting money into risky small firms, and it did produce big gains. Overall, the firm produced 50 percent to 80 percent annual profits for its investors, with much of that cash coming from a few big winners.

ELECTION 101: Nine facts about Mitt Romney

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Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, campaigns with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, center, and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., right, at Exeter High School in Exeter, N.H., Sunday. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

Chris Christie wows New Hampshire crowd. Romney-Christie ticket, anyone? (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.09.12

Any New Hampshire voters pining away for a more charismatic contender in their Republican primary may have had a few pangs Sunday night if they were in Exeter.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who resisted repeated entreaties to jump into the 2012 presidential race, joined New Hampshire front-runner Mitt Romney on stage at Exeter High School – and was soon competing for attention with hecklers shouting “Mitt kills jobs.”

Without missing a beat, Governor Christie defanged the protesters, Jersey style.

When the hecklers switched from “Mitt kills jobs” to “Christie kills jobs,” the larger-than-life governor stopped in his tracks. “Really?” The packed gymnasium erupted in laughter. “You know, something may go down tonight but it ain’t gonna be jobs, sweetheart,” Governor Christie shot back. The crowd roared.

Christie 1, Hecklers 0.

See for yourself in this video from the Exeter Patch

Christie kept going: "If she wasn't so blinded by her Barack Obama-induced anger, she'd know that American jobs are coming back when Mitt Romney is the next president of the United States!"          

Bam! Mr. Romney stood nearby, smiling. When interrupted by rudeness, that’s what he usually does – wait until security escorts the shouters from the hall, and then applaud the American tradition of free speech.

But while no one in the gym ripped off their Romney stickers and rushed the stage for one last attempt to get Christie into the race, that may have crossed a few minds. Certainly, the genteel one had been upstaged.

“I thought Mitt Romney was well-spoken and handled the hecklers well,” said one primary voter. “Chris Christie was better-spoken,” she continued, declining to give her name.

A Romney-Christie ticket, anyone?

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Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (l.) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney spar during a Republican presidential candidate debate at the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord, N.H., Sunday. Charles Krupa (Charles Krupa/AP)

New Hampshire GOP debate best yet, but who won?

By Staff writer / 01.08.12

Wow, that was fun. The Sunday morning “Meet the Press” Republican debate may have been the best such confab yet. Perhaps the pressures of time and circumstance drove all the GOP hopefuls to perform as well as they could. Iowa has already voted, and New Hampshire is looming. At this point in the race, it’s go big, or go home.

Who won? Well, the headline here may be that this is also the first debate in which Mitt Romney may have suffered substantial damage. Newt Gingrich must have read reviews from the first New Hampshire debate, held Saturday night – many judged he’d gone easy on the party front-runner. So in the first seconds after the bell rang Mr. Gingrich, among other things, charged that Mr. Romney needs to drop the “pious baloney” that he’s not a professional politician. Things degenerated from there.

“You happened to lose to McCain [in the 2008 presidential race], as you lost to Kennedy [in a 1994 Massachusetts Senate bid]. You’ve been running consistently for years and years. You’ve been running since at least the 1990s,” said Gingrich to Romney. The audience then broke out in applause.

Romney got his own licks in, though. He waited until almost the debate’s end. Gingrich was attacking over alleged misrepresentations of him in ads from a pro-Romney super political-action committee (PAC). Mitt took this as an opportunity to simply tick off some of the worst aspects of Newt’s record.

“The ad I saw said you had been forced from the speaker’s office. That was correct,” said Romney. And so forth and so on.

It’s our belief that neither Romney nor Gingrich won the debate, however. At this point, Romney is just holding on in New Hampshire – he’s lost ground four days in a row in Suffolk University’s state tracking poll, and is now down to a 15-point lead over second-place Ron Paul. Gingrich was very entertaining on the attack – besides “pious baloney,” he called the Environmental Protection Agency “increasingly imperious” – but rhetorical swordsmanship does not a statesman make, and at this point he’s far down in New Hampshire polls.

No, we think Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman Jr. together “won” the Sunday morning set-to. Nate Silver, New York Times polling analyst, thought so too – he tweeted that former Senator Santorum’s performance should win him an “A-," and Mr. Huntsman’s an “A.”

Santorum may have helped himself the most in terms of political positioning. He seemed passionate and articulate, without veering into the hectoring tone he’s been known to adopt. He emphasized the importance of blue-collar workers and family and parried tough questions about his vote to establish Medicare’s prescription drug program, and his stance on gay rights.

On that last issue, he managed to make it through without comparing gay marriage to polygamy, as he’s done in the past. He was asked how he’d react if a son of his said he was gay – an easy question masquerading as a tough one. Santorum did not whiff.

“I would love him as much as I did the second before he said it, and I would work to be a good father to him,” said Santorum.

The importance of Santorum’s performance does not deal with New Hampshire, per se. Rather, at a time when many conservatives are looking to rally around a candidate to oppose Romney, he did much better than Rick Perry or Gingrich, and thus increased his chances of becoming the consensus social-right choice.

Huntsman, for his part, is now at the crucial point of his entire run. If he does not do well in New Hampshire, it is hard to see where else he can make any inroads. And in recent days the state may have seen something of a Huntsman wavelet, if not a surge: Suffolk University now has him in third, behind Romney and Paul, at 11 percent of potential GOP voters. Double digits! Whoo-hoo!

Throughout Sunday’s chin wag, Huntsman projected himself as the adult in the room, the one who knew Americans are tired of divisiveness and political anger. When Romney once again questioned the propriety of his service as ambassador to China in the Obama administration, Huntsman parried with this: “This nation is divided because of attitudes like that.”

It won him applause, and might get him the post of chairman of the board of a high-minded D.C. nonprofit, but will that appeal to GOP primary voters? We’ll see, and we’ll probably see that it won’t. But in this wild season, every candidate in the race has had their day, and perhaps Huntsman’s is coming.

Oh, and what about Ron Paul? We’re not ignoring him – please Paulites, hold those e-mails – but on Sunday he was his usual self, depicting everyone else on state as a big-government spender in small-government clothing. He’ll do well in New Hampshire, a flinty state, but for him the real test will come when the race swings into the big primary states of South Carolina and Florida.

RECOMMENDED: Mitt Romney gaffes - 8 times the button-down candidate should have buttoned up

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Rep. Ron Paul of Texas points to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as he answers a question during a Republican presidential candidate debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., Saturday. (Elise Amendola/AP)

New Hampshire Republican debate: Why isn't Ron Paul attacking Mitt Romney?

By Staff writer / 01.08.12

The Ronald Reagan mantra of "thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican" curiously seemed to benefit only one person at Saturday's Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire: runaway front-runner Mitt Romney.

Jon Hunstsman Jr. apparently insulted Mr. Romney in Chinese (we're still waiting for a ruling from the judges on that one).

Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich's attacks on Romney sounded vaguely like an infomercial for The New York Times – hardly the most lauded media source among Republicans. Mr. Gingrich cited the paper's article on Romney's record at the venture-capital firm he founded, Bain Capital, four times in about 30 seconds.

The article, it turns out, wasn't written by The New York Times at all, but the Reuters news agency. 

Even the scorched-earth campaign run by Rep. Ron Paul of Texas came nowhere near Romney's doorstep. When Romney deflected a question on the Fourth Amendment to Paul, whom he dubbed the field's "constitutionalist," the two might well have curtseyed.

So why did no one bother to take on Romney Saturday night, in what might have been their best opportunity to do so before the New Hampshire primary Tuesday? 

Congressman Paul's national campaign chairman might have said it best: “Mitt Romney’s not fishing from the same pond as us," Jesse Benton told Politico. "We’re fighting to consolidate ourselves as the lone Romney alternative, the anti-Romney.… We’re the only candidate with the fundraising base, and we’re the only candidate with a national organization, and right now, I think we’re starting to show that we’re the only candidate with the election results to be able to do that.”

The fact is, the field seems to have come to the conclusion that Romney is untouchable in New Hampshire. He leads Paul by 22 points (39 percent to 17 percent) in the most recent poll by Suffolk University, with former Sen. Rick Santorum a distant third at 9 percent.

That dynamic has made the race a battle for second place. “Whoever comes out of New Hampshire No. 2 will be able to call it a victory, because Romney is running against his own expectations,” Wayne L’Esperance, a political scientist at New England College in Henniker, N.H., told the Monitor's Gail Russell Chaddock Saturday.

The most incisive moments of Saturday's debate came as Paul took his blowtorch to Gingrich and Mr. Santorum – his top rivals for the No. 2 slot both here and beyond.

First, he cast Santorum as a "big spending Republican" who could hardly lay claim to the title conservative, citing Santorum's decision to vote for increases in the debt limit during his time in Congress. Santorum parried well, saying that "conservative" was not synonymous with "libertarian" and raising questions about the credentials of an organization that labeled him "corrupt."

Paul seems to have gotten the better of Gingrich, though, in an attack on Gingrich's military service, which marked the only moment of raw emotion on the night. Gingrich gave an impassioned defense of his record, saying he was an "Army brat" who grew up in a military family. He did not serve in the military in wartime, he said, not because he got a deferment, but because he was married with a child.   

Paul, who served as a flight surgeon, responded: "When I was drafted, I was married and had two kids, and I went."

But it is unclear how all this fighting among the undercard does anyone but Romney any good. Paul has perhaps the most to gain. With views on foreign and economic policy considered by many experts to be too far out of line with Republican orthodoxy to win the nomination, he is competing for influence and ideals.

A No. 2 finish anywhere would be a good result.

But for Santorum and Gingrich, seemingly the only establishment figures with a chance of unseating Romney for the nomination, fending off Paul's attacks was not the most profitable way to spend the night.

"It can be easy to neglect Mr. Romney in New Hampshire, oddly enough, because he is so far ahead in the polls," writes polling analyst Nate Silver at the FiveThirtyEight blog. But "what I thought resulted for Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich was close to the worst of all possible strategic worlds. Neither candidate did much, either substantively or stylistically, to appeal to New Hampshire voters. But both spent only brief amounts of time attacking Mr. Romney, their biggest long-term problem."

At some point before crucial primaries in South Carolina (Jan. 21) and Florida (Jan. 31), one of the two will have to stop Romney's momentum. Last night didn't help, Mr. Silver suggested: "The end result could be a reasonably clear victory for Mr. Romney in South Carolina, at which point he would be well on his way to the nomination."

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Workers on a subway construction project in Pittsburgh. Unemployment is down in December. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

Unemployment rate: How low can it go by Election Day? Under 8 percent?

By Ron SchererStaff writer / 01.07.12

President Obama' reelection prospects hang in large part on how the economy is doing by Election Day, and perhaps the most obvious yardstick – and the one Americans care most about – is the unemployment rate.

This is hardly lost on Mr. Obama. "The most important thing we need to do is get more Americans back to work," he said in his Saturday radio address, in which he also previewed a White House forum on Jan. 11 that will feature business leaders who have opted to bring outsourced jobs back to the US.

Though the unemployment rate dipped in December – from 8.7 percent to 8.5 percent – it remains uncomfortably high for an incumbent president seeking reelection. When Obama took office in January 2009 unemployment stood at 7.8 percent, and Republicans will have a heavy cudgel with which to pound him if the jobless rate is worse almost four years later than it was then.

Commenting Friday on the latest unemployment figures, Republican House Speaker John Boehner laid down a marker of sorts: “Today marks the 35th consecutive month of unemployment above 8 percent, and too many Americans continue to struggle to find their next job.”

So, could the unemployment rate sink below 8 percent by Election Day?

It's possible but not likely, say some leading economists

It all depends on whether the economy can create jobs at the rate of about 268,000 a month between now and November, says Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Economy.com, in an interview. That's been the average monthly gain for the past five months, according to the Labor Department's survey of households (which differs from the department's survey of businesses because it includes new hires by small businesses). During that time, the unemployment rate has fallen from 9.1 percent to 8.5 percent.

But Mr. Zandi doubts the economy can sustain that rate of job growth. “I don’t think we’ll see consistent job gains at that pace,” says Zandi, who was an adviser to Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008. 

However, the labor force has not been growing at its usual clip, and that could help the unemployment rate to fall, argues economist Robert Brusca of Fact & Opinion Economics in New York. The labor force has been growing of late at a rate of about 0.7 percent, he says.

“It used to be you needed job growth of 150,000 [a month] to keep the unemployment rate from rising” because of the expanding population, says Mr. Brusca. “Now, it might be as low as 85,000 to 90,000 jobs per month.”

Adding about 90,000 new jobs a month would keep the unemployment rate at 8.5 percent. To reduce the rate to 8 percent, Brusca calculates, the economy would need to create 2,057,000 jobs between now and Election Day, or an average monthly rate of 260,000. And that's just what it’s been doing for the past five months.

The big unknown, says Brusca, is how much the labor force will grow during that time. Like other economists, he’s not sure why fewer people are in the workforce. Is it because wages have been flat and people don’t see it as worthwhile to search for work? Is it baby boomers slipping off into retirement?

A drop in immigration may be part of the explanation, says Zandi. He observes, too, that the largest decline in workforce participation is among white female college graduates. Some reports indicate that they have stopped looking for work and returned for additional education.

Labor Department surveys show 2 million more people than in 2007 indicate that they want to work, says Zandi. “You would think they would start stepping back into the labor force,” he says. “That’s why it will be tough to get below 8 percent by Election Day."

The Moody’s economist says the issue will be moot if Congress does not extend the payroll tax holiday past February and, likewise, extend unemployment benefits. If Congress does not act, it will cost the economy 600,000 jobs, calculates Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland.

That figure is about right, says Zandi, because the payroll tax holiday and extended unemployment insurance add about $175 billion to the economy, or 1 percent of gross domestic product. “You could not pass it and take a chance [that] everything works out OK, but I think that would be a mistake,” he says.

The way Zandi sees it, passing the legislation is like an insurance policy that the US can survive any economic downturn that might result from the ongoing financial crisis in Europe.

“If Europe becomes a bigger problem, the cost to the taxpayers will be more than $175 billion,” he says.

If the unemployment rate dips below 8 percent, would that blunt the Republican attack?

Probably not. On Friday, Speaker Boehner, in subsequent analysis, noted that the unemployment rate averaged 9 percent in 2011, and he said that 600,000 jobs were lost since the $787 billion economic stimulus was enacted in the spring of 2009.

That may be why, in his radio address, Obama characterized this as "a make or break moment for the middle class." It may be one for his reelection bid, as well. "We've got to keep at it. We've got to keep creating jobs," he said. 

Unemployment rate: How many Americans are really unemployed? 

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In this November 2011 photo, Republican presidential hopeful, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney greets a young supporter during a town hall event in Peterborough, N.H. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

New Hampshire primary: Will youth vote bring it on Tuesday?

By Staff writer / 01.06.12

Almost 200,000 18- to 29-year olds are eligible to vote in New Hampshire. They're a small share of the electorate, but they could play an important role in next Tuesday's primary, given that young voters in the Granite State tend to show up at the ballot box more often than do their counterparts nationwide.

Since 1998, they’ve cast ballots in general elections at a higher-than-average rate, reports CIRCLE, a research center on youth and politics at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

The high-water mark may have been 2008, when 43 percent of young citizens here participated in the primary elections, amid active races among both Republicans and Democrats. About 33,000 voters under 30 cast ballots that year in the Republican primary, but 39 percent of them said they were "independents."

In 2004, when there was just one competitive primary, 18 percent of the youth segment participated in New Hampshire.

Last week in Iowa, just 4 percent of young citizens showed up to the caucuses, down from 13 percent in 2008, when both parties had competitive presidential races. Tuesday will tell whether New Hampshire youths once again can claim a higher turnout. Of course, casting a ballot is quicker than voting at an in-person caucus, so it’s a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison. (The statistics above are from CIRCLE).

Who might the youth vote favor this time around? A University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll released Friday afternoon offered some insight. Among 18- to 34-year-olds likely to vote in the Republican primary:
• 45 percent plan to vote for Ron Paul.
 
• 35 percent favor Mitt Romney.
• 4 percent support Rick Santorum.
• 2 percent support Jon Huntsman Jr.
• 2 percent support Newt Gingrich
• 61 percent said a candidate's position on issues is important, compared with 12 percent who said it is important that the candidate could beat President Obama.
 
Keep in mind this is a small sample. Of 631 likely voters who completed the survey, only about 6 percent, 37 people, were in the 18- to 34-year-old category.

Rick Santorum wasn’t much on people’s radar screens in New Hampshire before his strong finish in Iowa. But he appeared this week at College Convention 2012 at New England College in Henniker, N.H., which draws students from around the country.

He made headlines for a contentious back and forth Thursday with college students over the gay-marriage issue, but at least the forum gave young voters an opportunity to check out the sweater-vested man who has been in the limelight of late.

Most of the New Hampshire college students staffing the event favored Jon Huntsman Jr., says Wayne Lesperance Jr., a political science professor who organized the event. Indeed, Mr. Huntsman won a straw poll at the convention, taking 196 of the 424 Republican votes cast.

Candidate Buddy Roemer also attended. Ron Paul would have had a rapt audience, but canceled his appearance there due to scheduling, Professor Lesperance says.

Instead, Mr. Paul came up indirectly Friday morning when someone asked Mr. Huntsman about a new Youtube video from a group supporting Paul that casts suspicion on Huntsman’s values and patriotism because of his experience in China.

A teacher asked what our society had come to when a candidate is criticized for speaking a foreign language. Huntsman responded that what bothered him more was the footage of his adopted children – one from China and one from India – and the suggestion that there was somehow something nefarious or un-American about that, Lesperance says.

The Paul campaign on Friday called the video “distasteful,” NashuaPatch.com reports.

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