After a January that included half a dozen televised debates, massive swings in the polls, four contests that yielded three different winners, and a staggering display of fundraising and spending on negative TV advertising, February was going to be the month that Mitt Romney tightened his grip on the GOP nomination.
But the Republican leadership contest is as fluid and unpredictable as ever with Rick Santorum’s Midwest sweep of three states, delivering a dramatic twist to the race.
Every campaign is now recalibrating for the months ahead. Here is your guide to each campaign’s strategy to win momentum and defend against any missteps and attacks.
The former Pennsylvania senator is suddenly the momentum candidate. Up until his Midwest victories in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado, he had one victory: a narrow win in the Iowa caucuses.
He has followed a shrewd strategy of focusing on states where he can run a campaign that is less costly and with constituencies that will find his social and fiscal conservatism appealing.
“I don’t stand here to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, I stand here to be the conservative alternative to Barack Obama,” Mr. Santorum told supporters in Missouri during his victory speech, a comment meant to dismiss Newt Gingrich and Mr. Romney at the same time.
Mr. Santorum will have a two-pronged strategy: hitting Mr. Gingrich as a Republican politician with a track record of alienating colleagues and being unpredictable, while hitting Mr. Romney for being too similar to President Barack Obama – likening the president’s health-care reform to Mr. Romney’s health-care reform as governor of Massachusetts.
Mr. Santorum’s hope is that Mr. Gingrich will stumble badly, and the very conservative grassroots of the party will come to him instead.
But Mr. Santorum is vulnerable, just as Mr. Gingrich is vulnerable, on his Washington D.C. political career. And the vast campaign war chest that Mr. Romney possesses has already hit Mr. Santorum over his time in Congress and partaking in “pork barrel” politics, otherwise known as the common practice of steering money to one’s home state.
Mr. Santorum also shares another problem with Mr. Gingrich: they both need money – and lots of it – to come anywhere near the Romney campaign’s political machine and its use of Super PACs to wage a withering campaign of TV attack ads.
With strong double-digit wins in Florida and Nevada, the former Massachusetts governor had regained the air of ‘inevitability.’ It lasted only a handful of days. Gone suddenly are the commentators, often conservatives, frequently discussing Mr. Romney’s eventual vice-presidential running-mate: Hispanic-American political super-star Senator Marco Rubio or New Jersey Governor Chris Christie?
The Romney campaign is once again vulnerable and with the key contests of Arizona and Michigan at the end of February, it must campaign with all kinds of questions over Mr. Romney’s vulnerability.
But Mr. Romney has been here before: in December his supporters unleashed attacks ads that cut down Mr. Gingrich’s remarkable surge, and when Mr. Gingrich won the South Carolina primary in January he took the attacks directly to Mr. Gingrich and won the Florida primary.
Now, it is Mr. Santorum’s turn in the attack ad spotlight. The Romney campaign will paint Mr. Santorum as a Washington D.C. insider. It is already buying ad time in states like Ohio, which is holding its primary in March.
Mr. Romney has been able to defend his candidacy after coming under attack over not releasing his tax records (which he did eventually) and his tenure as head of investment firm Bain Capital. But there are other key areas that are more difficult to explain away: the turnout in GOP contests is lower than 2008 and has led some – often Democrats – to talk about an enthusiasm gap; as the Republican race becomes nastier and Mr. Romney attacks his opponents more directly, his popularity is dipping; and polls show that President Obama would beat him in a general election.
The bottom line: there are still lingering doubts about Mr. Romney’s candidacy and conservatives just aren’t coalescing around him.
The former congressman and speaker of the House of Representatives is aiming for a respectable showing in the February contests, but his campaign is already looking ahead to the contests in the southern states – like his home state of Georgia – in March and beyond.
Mr. Gingrich has the gift of seeing a silver lining in the most difficult situations.
Although losing badly in Florida to Mr. Romney, the Gingrich campaign was encouraged by their candidate’s better showing in the Florida Panhandle, bordering Alabama and Georgia, and are keen to ride out the more unfavourable contests of February for a better playing field in March.
By the Texas primary on April 3rd, Mr. Gingrich says he aims to have narrowed the gap in delegates with Mr. Romney.
Mr. Gingrich’s has had his greatest success and failures on the debate stage: in South Carolina, he electrified audiences; in Florida, he floundered. In February, only one debate is scheduled.
Also, the most effective attacks on Mr. Romney have focused on his tenure as the head of Bain Capital and allegations that he behaved as a “corporate raider.” Mr. Gingrich has stepped back from those attacks in favour of the less effective “Massachusetts Moderate” versus the “Reagan Conservative” framing.
He must also defend his own Achilles’ heel: that while he campaigns as an insurgent against the Republican establishment, he is, in fact, a Washington D.C. insider who has been accused by Mr. Romney of “influence peddling” after resigning “in disgrace” as Speaker of the House of Representatives over ethics violations.
Up until February, the Texas congressman and libertarian had his strongest finish in New Hampshire, placing a strong second behind Mr. Romney.
His showings in Florida and Nevada, the first western state caucuses and where he was expected to do a lot better than his 3rd place finish, had people asking, once again, how long is he going to stay in the race?
But after a strong second-place finish behind Mr. Santorum in Minnesota, the Paul campaign is as energized as ever.
Mr. Paul keeps winning key demographics: the under-30s and the under-$30,000 income group. He did it in New Hampshire, and once again in Nevada. His base is passionate, dedicated, and although he lacks the Super PACs that the Romney and Gingrich campaigns possess, he does better than most other candidates when it comes to donations under $200.
He is arguably the most authentic candidate, garnering loud applause and cheers whenever he talks monetary policy – whether it’s getting rid of the Federal Reserve or elimination all income tax.
“I get energized because I know there’s a large number of people who are looking for another option,” he said on ABC’s “This Week” program in early February. “Romney doesn’t satisfy a lot of people.”
If Mr. Gingrich goes through on his promise to stay in the race all the way to the Republican convention in August in Tampa Bay, expect Mr. Paul to be right there with him. So long as he is winning delegates and generating enthusiasm at his rallies, the 76-year-old is not dropping out and may even exceed expectations in the battle for delegates.