Newt Gingrich became the third Republican candidate to orchestrate a victory in the early stages of this Primary season indicating that the GOP has yet to find common ground with any candidate in the field.
Before the Iowa caucuses, Mitt Romney was widely viewed as the strongest candidate, leading national and local polls. Rick Santorum was able to orchestrate a surge in Iowa, however, finishing second by only eight votes. While Romney had still won the caucus (and claimed the victory in his speeches), it was a close call that cast doubt upon his presumptive selection as the GOP candidate. Then, on January 18, the Iowa GOP announced that they had completed reviewing the caucus results, and the vote tallies for the two candidates had changed. Rick Santorum was declared the victor, by 34 votes.
The Romney campaign was attempting to ride a wave of momentum out of New Hampshire, where the candidate maintains a home, and carried a convincing victory. However, the week between New Hampshire and South Carolina produced some vicious attacks on Romney by the remaining candidates. Newt Gingrich had built a base of support in South Carolina, and was banking on a strong showing in a state that neighbors his home state of Georgia. Romney is often viewed as a moderate candidate, and his showing in the conservative south was widely expected to be a predictor of his ability to unite conservative branches of the party.
Strong debate performances by Gingrich helped to power his victory in South Carolina. Romney’s refusal to release his income tax data became an issue, as did his statements about what percentage he pays in taxes. As a candidate who has struggled to connect with the middle class, Romney’s continued refusal to release this information has left many to think that he has something to hide. Romney has since announced that he will release his tax return for 2010 and estimated taxes for 2011 on Tuesday. This may be too little too late, though, to help his campaign which currently appears to be floundering.
Santorum’s victory in Iowa, and Gingrich’s victory in South Carolina show that the GOP base is not as enamored with Romney as his campaign would have people believe. Exit polling as reported in the New York Times shows that the most important quality that people are looking for in a candidate is the ability to defeat President Barak Obama (51%). The second quality people are looking for is having the right experience (49%). In South Carolina, voters believed that the candidate who most had these qualities was Gingrich.
With the Base focused on defeating Obama rather than on a specific policy topic, the likelihood that a clear leader in the contest will emerge is slim. Primaries are designed to introduce voters to differing ideas and styles within their party. With voters focused on removing Obama by any means possible, they are not analyzing how the candidates will address the various issues that are facing the country. By ignoring the current issues, and by not beginning the process of unifying behind a single candidate, they face the very real risk of nominating a weak candidate who will not be able to to fulfill their desire of replacing Obama in the White House.