Monthly Archives: January 2012

Why Is Gingrich Still In The Race? There’s Really No Debate

Today one more South Carolina poll, this one sponsored by Clemson University, was released and it showed Newt Gingrich with a 6% advantage over Mitt Romney, 32-26%, with Paul in 3rd with 11% and Santorum at 9%.  The survey was in field on Jan. 18-19 – before last night’s debate, and it is the latest in a series of polls that show Gingrich inching into the lead there.  If the latest polling trends hold, Gingrich is poised to win tomorrow.  Romney, for his part, has begun downplaying expectations in his public comments, a sure sign that his internal polling is showing the same result.

If Newt does win tomorrow, I expect the media pundits – who have been loudly proclaiming the inevitability of Romney’s nomination – to now reverse direction and suddenly begin reassessing his candidacy.  At the same time, those who were formerly criticizing Gingrich’s candidacy will suddenly begin touting his hidden strengths.  Before that happens, let me issue two cautionary points.

First, Romney was never as strong a candidate as the media, with all its blather about the first non-incumbent to win Iowa and New Hampshire, etc., etc., made him out to be.  I trust I don’t have to repeat the reasons why that is the case.   The summary answer is that after five years running for president, he has not expanded his coalition to show he can win over conservatives.

But we should also realize that in many respects South Carolina is Newt’s ideal state.  Indeed, when Gingrich was plotting his nomination strategy last summer, South Carolina was always meant to be his breakout state because its demographics were most favorable to him.   That he is poised to do well here only seems surprising in light of the unexpected surge and decline in his polling support in November and December.   That initial surge triggered the barrage of negative ads and media scrutiny that brought Newt’s polling numbers back to earth.   But if you step back and focus on the big picture fundamentals, Newt’s strong showing in South Carolina is no more surprising than was Romney’s win in New Hampshire, given Newt’s regional roots and the state’s more conservative political profile.

In short, if Newt wins tomorrow, the switch in the media narrative will be more dramatic than will any change in the fundamental dynamics of the race itself.   And, as I noted yesterday, although Newt will undoubtedly get a boost coming out of South Carolina, the fundamentals – money, organization, demographics – still seem to favor Romney in Florida.  While I don’t share my political science colleagues’ oft-stated belief that Romney’s march to the nomination is preordained, and I disagree that he is helped by the winnowing of the conservative field, I do think a loss in South Carolina is not nearly as damaging to him as the media will suggest.  Similarly, as longtime readers know, I never bought my colleagues’ argument that Newt had no chance to win this nomination – in fact, I suggested that he matched up well with his competitors.  But we should not forget that his candidacy has real weaknesses, not least of which is that he remains a somewhat polarizing figure, that he lacks money, and that he has a weak organization.

So, given these weaknesses, why is Newt doing so well?  In my view, it can be summed up in a word: debates.   The extraordinary number of debates so far – 17 by my count – has afforded maximum (and free!) exposure in a format at which Newt excels.  I don’t recall any previous nomination cycle in which we have seen so many debates, and in which one candidate proved so consistently better than his competitors at taking advantage of this format. This cumulative impact of these debates has been to both winnow the field of potential strong competitors (see Perry) and to weaken others (Romney) while bolstering Gingrich’s reputation.   In short, I believe the debates have gone a long way toward compensating for Gingrich’s lack of money and organization.

There is no better illustration of this than in how Gingrich responded to what might have been a fatal revelation to a candidate who lacked Newt’s debating skills: the Marianne Gingrich accusation that the Newtster sought an “open” marriage so he could continue his dalliance with his new love (and eventual 3rd wife) Callista. Today’s post-mortem by the punditocracy of last night’s debate focused on – and endlessly replayed –  Newt’s riveting exchange with John King regarding Marianne’s accusation.   I watched the interview with Marianne aired by ABC after last night’s debate and her accusations seemed tamer and less harmful to Newt than the media leaks suggested.   Of course, we won’t know the full impact, if any, of this latest revelation before tomorrow.  If the pundits are to be believed, however, Newt’s aggressive debate response went a long way toward neutralizing the issue with South Carolina voters.  I have no independent polling evidence by which to confirm that assessment.  But in using the debate to bolster his political standing, Newt reprised a strategy that has – so far – boosted his candidacy beyond what many of his critics thought was likely. Whether it will be enough to overcome those factors – endorsements, money, and polling support – that most political science models view as the crucial determinants  of nomination races remains to be seen.  But it is a question worth debating.

Addendum (11:45): The latest PPP poll just released today shows Gingrich’s lead in South Carolina expanding 37% to 28% over  Romney, with 16% for Rick Santorum, and 14% for Ron Paul.  In the final day of the three-day tracking poll, Gingrich’s lead is even larger at 40-26% – about the margin that Romney had in winning New Hampshire.  According to PPP, 60% of those surveyed saw Thursday’s debate, and among those Gingrich led by a whopping 46-23%.  This is one poll, but is reinforces the point of my post: Gingrich has benefited from his debate performances.  One other factor in Gingrich’s favor?: only 31% of those surveyed think Marianne Gingrich’s charges are true, and 51% have “no concerns” about what came out in the interview.

I’ll  be on tomorrow.  South Carolina’s polls close at 7 p.m eastern time.  It should be an interesting night… .


Live Blogging the South Carolina debate

8:00  Did you see the CNN opening?  It was what you’d see for a playoff game…..”Under the Lights on the Frozen tundra of Lambeau Field…..”

Boy, the audience is really into this. It IS a sporting event.

By the way, the moderate John King used to be a local Massachusetts reporter, and remains a big Boston sports fan.

Let’s see if any of the candidates are singing…yep.  Right on cue.  Wait – Rick and Mitt are singing, but Paul and Newt are not.  How will that play with South Carolina voters?  And is that a virtual flag?  Maybe Newt and Ron don’t think that counts.

The other good point about King – he talks really really really fast.  So he’ll get questions out.

Nice intro by Rick – gets the Iowa thing right out front.

It’s no coincidence that Mitt mentions his longtime marriage and kids!  He ooozes sincerity!  Same for Rick.

Meanwhile, Ron shamelessly plugs his military service in a strong military service state.

King wastes no time getting the big story out.  The crowd is hushed.

Careful Newt…too strident….. mix in some contrition, won’t you?  I’m not sure this is how to address this – am I wrong?  The crowd seems to like it.  Clearly Newt is trying to create the  backlash against the liberal media.  And there it is – the elite media!  Once again Gingrich tries to turn this into a question about the media.

Looks like everyone is closing ranks behind Newt, although Paul does give a shout out to his wife.

Jeff – I think you may be right.  A winner for Newt.  Does this defuse the issue for the remaining two days – and for the campaign?  Note that the full interview has yet to air.

8:16 – This is where Paul is pretty good – discussing job creation in the context of the business cycle.  Newt is always quick to turn a jobs question into a specific issue related to South Carolina’s concerns.

I’m not sure, based on polling data, that Bain Capital is a winner here, but I guess Newt has to answer the question asked.  Mitt is smart to answer the previous question.

Crony capitalism is really the key Republican talking point of the campaign – I’m surprised it hasn’t come up before.  Nice answer by Mitt, but I’m surprised he is sticking to his attack on Obama.  Unless he has secret polling data, I think he has to respond to attacks from Newt. As of right now, he’s losing (at least in the polls.)

King is asking good questions so far.  Santorum is getting antsy over there….

8:23 – Santorum is going to make his pitch to lower-income workers. But he seems strangely subdued…is it me, or are his eyes shifting a bit too much?

8:27 Nice touch couching the jobs question in terms of returning veterans.  Paul’s post- World War II budget cutting figure is not very useful, since the cut in budget reflected the end of the war!

Santorum is basically couching his answer in terms of the political payoff in South Carolina. Cutting the military doesn’t play well down there.

Newt is determined to one up Paul on his World War II history – it was all about tax cuts.  Newt can’t resist playing the history professor.

8:33 King does a nice job of rescuing us from a softball audience question.  It makes Mitt lay out his own plan as opposed to simply railing against Obamacare.  Newt one ups Mitt by turning it into a job question.

Rick is not going to play attaboy.  And that’s the right play – he has to go on the offensive tonight.  But he’s doing Newt’s work too.  This is the strongest sustained attack on Romneycare anyone has given so far.

But, wait!  There’s more!  Newt is for individual mandate!  Rick is making his last-ditch pitch, and it’s a good one.  “Footsies with the Left’!  Ouch. Nicely done Rick.

There’s not alot Mitt can do here – if he touts the success of Romneycare, he sets himself up as serving as the model for Obamacare.  This isn’t helping Mitt, and Rick won’t let go.  You go Rick!  Again, Newt is sitting back and watching this with a smile.

Newt – I’ll debate the President without a teleprompter.  Still, he doesn’t answer Rick’s charge. Rick is scoring points, but he’s very angry doing this.  Newt finally owns up, but I’m not sure he’s going to defuse the issue entirely.  I wonder what else Rick has up his sleeve?  How about immigration?

So far Paul is having a strong debate because he’s focusing on spending issues, his strong suit.


Wow, nice touch by Newt to release his tax returns during the debate – an obvious opening to go after Mitt on this issue.  I have to think Mitt will be prepared. He’d better be!

Spirited exchanges so far, but that opening riposte by Newt against King still seems to me to be the lead. Everyone looks on their game, the exchanges are spirited.  I don’t think Mitt is doing enough to change the polling trend lines, and the big issues that could hurt him, including taxes, haven’t even been broached.

Rick has come to this debate loaded for bear – all he needs to say here is that he’s finished ahead of Gingrich in two races so far.  And he does – and he does it by reminding voters of Newt’s mercurial grandiosity.  A great answer by Rick. Let’s see how Newt responds.  He touts his record building the Republican majority, but you wait – Rick is going to say, then what happened Newt?

And, right on cue!  Rick says it’s a problem of execution, not grandiose ideas.  Again, Rick is really scoring points.  But he’s also really really angry…is he too far over the top?

This gives Mitt a nice opening to criticize Newt and Rick as political insiders.  (What is Newt laughing about?)  Nice little touch to mention Reagan’s diary.

Not a bad response by Newt, but a better response by Romney.  Mitt is having a good debate so far……Newt, after his opening salvo, has not had his best night.

Once again, Mitt’s tax answer isn’t really the best – he might release his older tax returns? Then he tries to switch the subject.  It isn’t obvious that Mitt is honest with his taxes – that’s the point of releasing them.

Boy, King has also come prepared. He throws Mitt’s father back at him!  Wow, Mitt is blowing what has been a stellar performance tonight!  Just say yes, for gosh sakes! Boy, I’m not sure this poor little Mitt character he is trotting out is going to work.  I see Newt’s next commercial writing itself.

9:08 How to stem the flow of overseas jobs – that is, why is Apple in China?

I love it when Paul gives us an economic lecture, rather than taking the easy route.  Of course, it’s not clear how well this sells in South Carolina, even if its true….Eventually, he scores a political point (right to work), but its lost in this long excursion into trade policy, and who benefits, etc.

9:13.  Stop OnLine Piracy (SOPA) question.  For or against?  This is the type of question that Newt can riff on. He’s for freedom!  Freeeeeeedoooommmmm!  (Frankly, I’m not sure this is a hot issue for most South Carolina voters.  Mitt attaboys Newt.  So does Ron.  Rick – as he has done all night – tries to stake out a slighly different position, but it’s not clear to me that his speech in favor of property rights really won over anyone.  A rather esoteric topic to debate live.

BREAK TWO – 9:17.

I thought Mitt gave away some of his advantage with his inability to give a simple, believable answer to the tax question.  How hard can it be?  His answer is going to on youtube and in a Newt ad 10 minutes after this debate is over.  Having said that, no one is really running away with this.  Rick came clearly ready to score points, and he has done his homework.  But he’s angry again.  Still, I think he’s probably “winning” if there is such a thing.  Paul has been good too and I’m sure his base is pleased, but I’m just not convinced he has much upside in South Carolina.

9:24 – What would you do differently?  Someone should tell Mitt that another 25 votes wouldn’t have given him victory in Iowa.  Newt’s answer wasn’t necessarily a sellling point – he’s a big idea guy – because that’s precisely what Rick has been criticizing him for.  Nice answer by Rick.  Same for Paul – but he needed to end by saying “and that message is LIBERTY!”

Finally, an immigration question.  Newt’s soft point. Look for Mitt to say he’s not for amnesty, and Newt is.  Newt does the right thing – he talks about all the tough sanctions he would impose first, before he gets to the “deporting grandma” .  It’s not a winner in South Carolina, but it is what it is, and it may help him in Florida and Nevada with some groups.

Look for Rick to unload on both Newt and Mitt on this issue.  Rick is the son of an immigrant – but a legal immigrant!  Yep, he unloads (Mitt changed his position…as he often does….ouch!)

Rick has come to this debate with a seriousness of purpose – maybe too serious.  I think Newt is playing the long game here – but in the short run South Carolina is voting in two days.  Again, not his best issue.

You have to admire Paul – and this is part of his appeal – he really doesn’t give a darn sometimes about political posturing if it conflicts with his principles.  But sometimes his principled positions make no sense.  You can’t expect the military to take on border control.

Abortion issue – not a big issue in a job-based election.  But if it resonates anywhere, it does here at least with part of the social conservative electorate. But I don’t think Newt really wants to push this issue.  His nitpicking of Mitt’s stance on this issue seems designed solely to score political points.

Rick isn’t going to go quietly.  He again attacks both Newt and Mitt on this issue.  Too bad we didn’t see this Rick much much earlier in the campaign.  Still, this isn’t a real winning issue.

Wow, Shades of Owen!  The crowd demands that Paul be allowed to speak. (By the way, does anyone else wish King would sit down?)  He does, but it’s not his best bit – he says it’s about morality, not law – but he doesn’t say what the morality is.   Rick goes on the attack comparing Paul to Harry Reid.  Paul’s getting caught up a bit here in his own logic – now he says it not morality, it’s a state’s right issue.  Again, it could have been said a lot more easily.

Break Three (I think)

Hard to score this one so far…..but if Newt ends up holding on to take S.C., what will the pundits say about the old saw that no Republican has won the nomination without winning South Carolina?  Does it mean the saw is now wrong? Or do they stick to their story and it means Newt is the nominee?

9:52.  King must be reading my blog posting.  Good final question from King.

Paul’s “Braveheart” moment – liberty isn’t a local issue.  and to be free, we must cut spending.

Gingrich – He’s going to play the electability card.  Big change requires a Big Guy – he’s make a strong case for why Obama must go, but not a very good case for why he’s the man to do it.

Romney – Who is he looking at, by the way.  A return to first principles.  Restore, not transform – that’s what he will do.  A rousing final speech. Did it close the deal?

Santorum – We need a “conviction conservative”.   Never mind a soaring finale – Rick will use his last breath to attack Newt and Mitt.   I give him an “A” for effort tonight. He left it all in the debate hall – it will take a Bachmann miracle for him to pull this out, but I think he helped his cause.  But the bigger question is: who did he hurt more?

Ok, that’s it.  Keep in mind that in part, the impact of this debate will be a function of how the media slices and dices it.

My initial response:

Santorum scored repeatedly all night in maybe his most forceful performance of the campaign.  I thought, like Owen, that he did more damage to Newt, because his comments that Newt was a big thinker who was poor on execution plays right into the line Romney has been pushing in his own ads.  The problem is Rick is too far behind to pull this out, so by hurting Newt he helps Romney, at least a bit.

But Romney had his own gaffe – the tax issue is just going to be replayed endlessly the next two days.  So does that offset anything he gained from Rick?

Finally, this was not Newt’s best performance, but he didn’t make any major gaffes, and I think he probably defused the Marianne issue, although her full interview is still to run.

A couple of factors that may be definitive here: how does the media play this in terms of highlighting soundbites?  What if Gingrich’s opening attack on King is the lead story?  What if Romney’s tax weaseling leads?  Part of Santorum’s problem is that even if he “won” the debate, the media has already written him off, so he doesn’t necessarily get the boost he deserves.

As I listen to the first media take, they are focusing on Gingrich’s opening defense and Romney’s tax – no mention of Santorum.  If the rest of the media plays it this way, Newt might skate.  The media, in their usual navel gazing way, think the media’s right to ask the Marianne question is the real issue here.  Never underestimate the media’s belief that debates are about them, and not the candidates.

There’s one other factor to consider here – as I’ve been working through some of the cross-tabs of recent polls, it is clear that Paul draws a good chunk of support from voters who otherwise would back Romney.   I think Paul’s relatively strong performance tonight doesn’t help Romney.

Bottom line: based on what I saw tonight, and how the media is spinning this, I think Gingrich did enough to hold serve and, given the recent trends in the polling, I think he’s going to hold on to win here.  But…and this is a big but….we can’t be sure what will come out in the next 48 hours.  Pending some weird surprise….I think Newt held on enough tonight to clinch the deal.  But I’m willing to be persuaded that I’m wrong!

I’ll be on tomorrow with the post-debate postmortem….thanks again for all your participation!  Great comments tonight.  You’ve all earned a scotch. Pour a single malt, sit back, and toast this wonderful American experiment that we call democracy.

Addendum (10:45): By the way, Newt paid nearly $1 million in federal taxes last year, putting him over 30% tax rate.  I have to think this is going to be an issue that is going to hurt Mitt – why he won’t simply address this issue is beyond me.  All I can think is that Mitt’s accountants are still scouring the tax returns to see to if there are anything that can be used to hurt him.  This one issue may cost him South Carolina … and if he loses here, what’s next?



Perry Endorses, Newt’s Divorces, and Santorum’s Remorses

Since I posted this morning, four more South Carolina polls have come in, three of which were in the field entirely after Monday’s debate.  Each of the three most recent polls has Newt in the lead, albeit within the polls’ margin of error.  Note that all three are automated polls, which may or may not be significant. Mark Halperin conveniently summarizes them for us at his website:

As you can see, they support my earlier assertion that Newt has pulled into a de facto tie with Mitt two days before Saturday’s South Carolina primary.  Note that Newt has pulled even despite the fact that Romney’s support is holding pretty steady.  This is really a case of the late deciders all breaking for Newt after Monday’s debate.  If the trend lines hold, Gingrich is poised to eke out a narrow victory, which would put a crimp in the pundits’ prevailing narrative.

But that’s a big “if” given two additional developments since I posted.  First, Rick Perry gave a strong endorsement for Newt, saying, “I believe Newt is a conservative visionary who can transform our country. We’ve had our differences, which campaigns will inevitably have, and Newt is not perfect, but who among us is?”  As I indicated this morning, I don’t think this will provide a huge boost to Newt’s likely support, although even a modest boost may be critical in a close race.  But what it does do is provide some political insulation for Newt against any fallout from today’s second big story:  ABC’s interview with Gingrich ex-wife Marianne (the second one).  Among the explosive allegations purportedly contained in the interview, perhaps none is bigger than the report that Newt asked Marianne for an “open marriage” so that he could be with Callista (now his third wife) without divorcing Marianne.  It’s hard to say what impact, if any this story will have.   Obviously this steps on the Perry endorsement, which is not great news for Newt, but will it actually cost him votes?  I suspect it will give some social conservatives pause – but I simply don’t know how many will reconsider supporting Newt.  My gut says not many – the same gut that said Rick Perry would be a strong candidate, mind you.

In this regard, a greater proportion of women than men are undecided about Newt’s candidacy, according to the latest polls.  On the other hand, there’s the possibility that conservatives will seek this as a thinly veiled plot by the “liberal” media to destroy Newt’s candidacy.  And, of course, there will be the inevitable questioning of Marianne’s motives – why now?  What’s in it for her?  Who is really behind the story?  I don’t pretend to know the answer to any of these questions, but I’m pretty sure it will come up in the form of a question at tonight’s debate.   If so, Newt has to turn the other cheek with his response.  He should avoid questioning Marianne’s motives at all costs, and indeed mentioning her at all.  Instead, he should repeat the Christian mantra: “I am not worthy. I ask for forgiveness.”  Then he should remind voters it happened a long time ago, and proceed to wax eloquent about his wife, his grandchildren and his new found maturity.  He should finish by saying, “Rick Perry was right when he endorsed me today. I’m not perfect.  None of us are.”

Keep in mind that neither Santorum nor especially Romney can bring this issue up on their own, but they will certainly be given the opportunity to pile on. Romney in particular has to be careful in this regard – he can’t look like he’s trying to score points at Newt’s personal expense.  A simple, “it’s something each voter must think about in her heart” will suffice. Then he damn well better go on the offensive about all of Newt’s other baggage:  immigration, ethics violation, Fannie Mae, etc.

On any other day, of course, the big story would be the belated acknowledgment that Rick Santorum had won in Iowa (don’t give me any of the media’s CYA “virtual tie” crap).  Poor Rick!  As it is his poll numbers have been dropping, and this may well be his last debate.  At this point there’s not a lot he can do to reverse those numbers, I don’t believe, short of major gaffes by Newt and Mitt.  Paul, meanwhile, has to make sure his medication kicks in in time to prevent him from going on one of his Wacky Uncle diatribes regarding currency, the Fed and how we are going to withdraw into Fortress America, with defense bases dotting the countryside.  He needs to stick with what got him here: deficit reductions, spending cuts and LIBERTY!  Although, as I look at the polling numbers, I think his core support is so solid that he’s relatively immune to any fallout from a weak debate performance.  Indeed, what I consider weak may not even matter to Paul’s true believers.  He’s going to get his 15%, medication or not.

I’ll be on at 7:50 for the live blog.  It promises to be a good one. Please join in….


Gingrich Surges, Perry Drops Out, Santorum Wins Iowa, and Romney Fights Back

Somewhere on the road to inevitability the Romney caravan hit a bump.  How big a bump remains to be seen.

First, the Des Moines Register is reporting that the certified results from the Iowa caucuses will show Rick Santorum winning that race by 34 votes, but with the results from 8 precincts likely never to be known.  So much for Romney as the first non-incumbent ever to have won both Iowa and New Hampshire – one of the very weak pegs on which the media had hung Romney’s mantle of inevitability.  Given the margin of victory initially reported in Iowa (8 votes!), and the fact that Romney actually did no better there than he did four years ago, it was a rather lame claim, but almost every news story I read used it as a lead after New Hampshire. It was a classic case of the media shaping perceptions through the way it framed election results.

More significantly,  this morning CNN is reporting that Rick Perry , who is polling in single digits in South Carolina, will formally announce at 11 a.m. that he’s dropping out of the race.  There is no mention as yet whether he will endorse another candidate.   This is likely good news for Newt Gingrich – but perhaps not as good as you might think.  In the PPP crosstabs from a survey conducted a week ago 37% of Perry supporters listed Gingrich as their second choice, compared to 28% who chose Romney.  Given that Perry was only pulling in about 6% of the vote at the time, the marginal boost to Gingrich – based on this one survey – if Perry supporters move to their second choice is likely to be about 1%.  However, this survey predates Monday’s debate, so it may be that Gingrich will pick up slightly more Perry voters now.  On the other hand, it’s not clear that there are any Perry voters left in South Carolina.

Even that slight amount, however, could be decisive in a close race. And it looks like it is going to be just that.  Today, in the only poll taken entirely after Monday’s debate, Insider Advantage has Gingrich leading in South Carolina, 31.6-28.8%, with Paul at 15.2% and Santorum fading fast at 10.9%.  Note that Newt’s lead is well within the poll’s margin of error. Two previous polls,  however,  both of which were in the field at least in part before Monday’s debate, still have Romney ahead. First, a Politico/Tarrance poll in the field on Monday and Tuesday still has Romney clinging to a slight lead, 31-29%, over Gingrich, with everyone else polling in single digits (including Paul at 9%). Again, that is a lead well within that poll’s margin of error.  In a poll taken mostly before Monday’s debate, however, NBC/Marist finds Romney still leading Gingrich by 10% – but the lead shrinks to 5%, 31-26%, among those surveyed after the debate.   Collectively, these three polls testify to a Gingrich surge  coming out of his debate performance last Monday and heading into tonight’s crucial CNN debate, and only two days before actual voting.   As those of you who followed Monday’s debate with me know, the crucial  turning point in that event was likely Gingrich’s riveting exchange with Juan Williams regarding race, food stamps and Obama – an exchange that elicited a standing ovation from the partisan crowd.  Romney’s equivocal answer to the tax question, meanwhile, didn’t help his cause.

In looking at recent polls, several themes stand out.  First, the Bain Capital attacks are a mixed blessing for Gingrich and Romney, with South Carolina voters narrowly split on whether these attacks are fair or not.  My guess is Gingrich is going to pivot away from this topic and focus on the other elements of Romney’s portfolio, such as his taxes and off-shore investments during the next two days, in an effort to keep the focus on his opponent.  Note that most of the surge in support for Newt is coming from the Tea Party crowd.  Evangelicals, however, are still uncertain about him.  Interestingly, given the attention the media has paid to the SuperPacs, less than 1/3 of those surveyed in the Marist poll say the ads are influencing their choices, but fully 70% say the debates do.   Finally, in a sign that Paul can play a spoiler role, but no more, a substantial minority of likely South Carolina Republican voters say he is an unacceptable candidate.   Consistent with my earlier post, he is doing particularly well among independents, but not among mainstream Republicans.

Clearly, events are breaking in Newt’s direction.  Before anyone jumps on the Newt’s amphibian backside, however, keep in mind that the race moves quickly to Florida, which votes on Jan. 31, and where Romney has huge advantages in demographics, money, organization and – as of now – polling numbers.  It’s hard to see him losing there – at this point.

A final thought. Throughout the fall, when badgered by friends and students to predict who would win the Republican nomination, I always made three points:  First,  I didn’t know, and no one did.  It was too early to predict.  However, if pushed,  I thought Romney’s support was overstated, Gingrich’s understated, and that Perry was potentially the strongest candidate.  Clearly I was wrong about Perry.  I based my assessment of his strength on three factors: his record winning elections, his fundraising prowess, and his record as Texas governor, particularly on jobs.  However, I made my assessment without ever seeing him debate!  As it turned out, he never really recovered from those early stumbles and, in a crowded field of non-Mitt candidates fighting for the same slice of voters, the debate gaffes proved fatal.  This is a reminder that, particularly in the invisible primary when first impressions matter, outcomes turn on more than resumes and issue stances.  Candidate qualities count too.

Keep my Perry assessment in mind the next time I make a prediction.

In the meantime, however, in what is shaping up to be a potentially pivotal event, all eyes will be on South Carolina tonight.  As always, I’ll be live blogging.  The debate starts at 8 p.m. on CNN. Participation was up during Monday’s event, which saw some memorable exchanges.  Tonight there will be only four candidates, the stakes will be even higher , and the potential repercussions from a Perry-like gaffe even larger.   So please join in!

Addendum (11:00 a.m.): Several media outlets are now reporting that Perry plans on endorsing Gingrich.  Stay tuned.

Who Will Be The Lizard King? The Latest South Carolina Polls

It is probably no coincidence that CNN, which is hosting tomorrow’s South Carolina debate, hyped the results of its latest poll from that state as evidence “that [Romney’s] advantage over Newt Gingrich is rapidly shrinking.”   In fact, the poll taken Jan. 13-17 – a survey period almost entirely before Monday’s debate – has Romney up by 10% over Gingrich, 33% to 23%, with Santorum a distant third with 16%.   Yes, that does represent a 9% swing in Newt’s favor since the previous CNN poll two weeks before.  However, as Mark Halperin notes, that previous poll was something of an outlier because it showed Romney with a bigger lead than most other polls.  In the intervening two weeks, most other polls have shown Romney’s lead increasing – not diminishing.

Despite that caveat, I think that the tail end of the CNN survey may have caught a mini-Gingrich polling boomlet triggered not just by his strong debate performance, but also the impact of the raft of negative advertising that collectively has hit Mitt where it hurts the most: his ample wallet.

It really began, of course, with Romney’s rather indelicate remarks during the New Hampshire campaign regarding his love of pink slips and his own brushes with poverty, both of which became fodder for Newt’s campaign commercials.  Then there was the 30-minute docu-ad, funded by a pro-Newt SuperPac, chronicling Romney’s role at Bain Capital.  On Monday, in a rather stunning debate gaffe, Mitt equivocated on whether he would release his tax returns, finally saying he might do it sometime in April – when, presumably, he will have the nomination clinched.  In the aftermath of that stumble, he acknowledged that most of his income was now taxed at the 15% capital gains rate – all perfectly legit, but less than the rate many Americans pay.  He also acknowledged earning additional money through speaking fees, but said it wasn’t very much – if you consider over $300,000 from last year alone not much!  Finally, two hours ago ABC released this story with the headline “Romney Parks Millions In Offshore Tax Haven.”

Again, if you read the story, it is quite clear that Romney has done nothing wrong, and that the Cayman Islands are a tax haven for foreign investors – not for Romney.  Nonetheless, the cumulative impact of these stories has been to paint Romney as a latter day Gordon Gekko, the Michael Douglas character in the film Wall St. who famously expounded on the virtues of greed.

All this in a state where unemployment is pushing 10%.  Needless to say, the beneficiary of the Mitt-as-Gekko storyline has been Newt Gingrich.  When John King announced the CNN poll tonight, he hinted that the results of that part of the survey done after Monday’s debate showed much greater gains for Gingrich.  Of course, given the limited sample size, we need to be cautious about interpreting the results.  We will know more tomorrow, when NBC is supposed to reveal the results of their first post-debate poll.  Gingrich – never one to take good news quietly – has now gone on record as saying he will win on Saturday.  The only question is by how much. I’m guessing he has additional internal polling results that show him gaining ground.

Meanwhile, as expected, Mitt is not taking this sitting down.  He’s rallied the Republican establishment against Newt, with an effort to brand the former Speaker as unreliable, as the following ad shows. .

All this sets up a delicious rematch in tomorrow’s debate, and I haven’t even begun to mention Santorum, whose polls numbers are slipping, or Paul, who certainly is looking to rebound.  One area that has gotten a bit of media play again is Newt’s relatively moderate stance on immigration, which may serve him well looking ahead to Florida and Nevada, but which will not play well in South Carolina.  I expect Romney to counterpunch on both these themes in tomorrow’s debate.

South Carolina: It’s Gekko vs. the Newt in the Battle To be Lizard King*

*Ok, a newt is technically an amphibian. Still….