To date Mitt Romney has been content to adopt the classic front-runner’s strategy; except for the occasional veiled critique, he’s largely ignored his Republican rivals and instead has focused his attacks on President Obama. In turn, strategists in Obama’s campaign have largely trained their guns on Romney, in the apparent belief that he is the President’s most likely rival. While the media pundits have been hyping the anticipated Romney-Obama contest, Newt Gingrich has largely kept his big head down, obeyed Reagan’s 11th commandment and, primarily on the basis of a series of excellent debate performances, quietly marched to the front of the Republican race in most of the key early nominating events.
Somewhat belatedly, it appears that Mitt may be beginning to realize that the conventional wisdom may be wrong, and that without a change in strategy he is in danger of losing this nomination fight. In an interview yesterday with Fox News’ Bret Baier Mitt didn’t exactly take his Italian-made genuine leather exterior rabbit fur-lined gloves off. But he did loosen them a little to throw what by Mitt’s standards is a gentleman’s punch. When asked about the Union Leader’s endorsement of Newt, Mitt replied that Newt was a “life-long politician” who was not as likely as Mitt to beat Obama in the general election. Romney concluded: “I believe that my views are essential to get this country going again, so, no problem with Newt Gingrich, good man, but very different person than I am based on our life experiences.” Not exactly fighting words, to be sure, but for Romney that passes for a political attack. Let’s go to the video (and note that caption “Robot Romney” is not mine).
Note that when Baier pressed him on whether his previously stated views on immigration were essentially no different than Newt’s, Romney went into front-runner mode again and refused to address Newt’s views, focusing instead on clarifying his own immigration policy which, essentially, is that illegal immigrants must “get in line” for citizenship, (or for some other legal status). Notably, Mitt did not say whether that line formed outside or inside the United States.
As the interview went on, Mitt got a little testy (I thought I saw a hair strand or two move), particularly when Baier asked him to defend his Massachusetts health care policy, but except for the one gentle jab at Newt this was for the most part more front-runner posturing. And it raises the question whether Mitt can afford to keep acting as if Newt is the latest Republican afterthought. Because right now the political winds are blowing strongly in Newt’s favor. The latest poll in Florida has Newt trouncing Mitt, 41% to 17% in that crucial primary state, a margin that almost certainly reflects the movement of former Cain backers to Gingrich. As the chart below shows, that puts Newt up in the RealClear Politics composite tracker by 16% over both Cain and Romney among Florida voters, with Cain dropping fast. (Newt is green, Romney purple and Cain red in this poll.)
Meanwhile, Newt continues to lead the polls in both Iowa and South Carolina, and the latest New Hampshire poll – and the first since the Union Leader endorsement – has him down only 10%, 34%-24%, to Romney. That represents a gain of 23% for the Newtster in the last month in a state that Romney simply cannot afford to lose. Today Romney rolled out his second television ad in New Hampshire. Although the tone is positive, the message touting Romney’s private sector experience can be construed as an implicit attack on Newt, the career politician. Time will tell whether Mitt is going to have to engage Newt more directly in the New Hampshire media campaign.
And what of Cain? As of tonight, it appears that he will remain in the race, so he will likely retain at least some of his dwindling support. But, consistent with my post from yesterday, Mark Halperin at the Pollster website cites additional evidence based on two more polls indicating that should Cain choose to drop out, Gingrich will be the primary beneficiary.
We are still a month away from the first caucus. Much can change in 30 days. So why bother parsing polling results at all? Because, for better and for worse, candidates must use something to gauge whether their message is resonating, and how they are faring against the competition. At this stage, polls are important less for their predictive capacity than for signaling to the candidates whether their strategies are working. And right now, Mitt’s strategy is not. It may be time, gosh darn it, for Mitt’s valet to roll up Mitt’s suit jacket sleeves, muss up his hair, and tell him to put up his…er…mitts.
10:09 P.M. Addendum – A second Florida poll just came in, and it shows Newt up over Mitt by an even bigger margin: 47%-17%, with Cain at 15%.