Winston Churchill’s comments about the Battle of Egypt in 1942 popped into my mind when the Iowa Caucus vote was in: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Presidential campaigns before the age of state primaries lasted about six months maximum. Today they go on for two years—if they ever really stop. Iowa, perhaps, is the end of the beginning for 2012.
The presidential race in 2011 was conducted in two parallel universes. President Obama gamed the political system constantly (debt limit debate, millionaire tax hike, Keystone Pipeline, etc.) to build the campaign themes for his re-election. Air Force One endured thousands of miles of domestic presidential travel that always seemed to end up in one of the key battleground states.
In GOP land, the seemingly never-ending procession of debates cluttered the landscape. The over-done debate schedule was manna from heaven for the lightly-known and under-capitalized candidates in the field. The debates often spawned two-week wonders who rose in the polls, assumed the mantle of lead candidate, then plummeted back to earth tarnished and embittered. The national Republican leaders were not wise to condone the myriad of debates which led to an orgy of candidate bashing. While Obama glided high over the country with the presidential seal embossed on his airplane, his potential challengers were down in the mud spewing venom. The primaries will continue the blood-letting until the GOP nominee is clearly established—and the president will continue to benefit from it.
The Republican field thus far has basically divided itself into two halves: Romney and the anti-Romneys. That division continues in the primaries. In 2008, Mike Huckabee was the Rick Santorum. He masterfully welded together a rural, evangelical coalition and overcame a lack of money with superior organizing ability to win the Iowa Caucuses. Huckabee was the candidate to the right of McCain and Romney. It worked for him in Iowa and against him in New Hampshire. He lacked the resources to become successful in South Carolina where McCain won and basically wrapped up the nomination.
The question is: will the script (but not the cast of characters) be the same in 2012?
Romney and Santorum fought to a tie in Iowa. Santorum doesn’t need a win in New Hampshire (Romney is heavily favored there) but he does need to meet the growing expectations that now exist for him. That essentially means he needs to move past John Huntsman, Ron Paul, and Newt Gingrich. If he does, he has a chance to mount the serious campaign needed to survive the January primaries. If Santorum falters in New Hampshire or South Carolina, Romney could conceivably wrap up the nomination early, unless a late-comer jumps in the race—which is extremely unlikely—or unless either Rick Perry or Gingrich comes battling back in South Carolina.
The big issue in South Carolina is the attempt by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to shut down Boeing’s Dreamliner plant there. The NLRB’s injunction was eventually withdrawn, but South Carolina’s voters are seething at the unions and any who sympathize with them. Unfortunately for Santorum, he has a record of doing that. Romney already has ads up slamming the NLRB’s actions. If he or any of the other candidates connect some of Santorum’s pro-labor votes in the discussion, Santorum could develop a major problem in the Palmetto State.
Many twists, turns, and surprises lie ahead in the 2012 presidential election. The national economy and geopolitics remain as potent obstacles for President Obama. The internal strife within the GOP must be overcome if the Republican nominee is going to have a legitimate shot at winning. This saga will not end soon, but at least we are getting past the end of the beginning.