Friday, Dec. 2, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Once, it was Rick Perry. Then, it was Herman Cain. Now, Newt Gingrich is leading the GOP presidential field, with commanding leads in polls in Iowa, Florida and South Carolina, and nationwide.
Mitt Romney may be leading in Nevada, but since the Iowa straw poll, he has led the national Republican presidential field for less than three weeks total.
Yet Romney’s been the focus of President Barack Obama’s re-election rhetoric.
Perry releases a flat-tax plan. A campaign spokesman hits Romney for being “guided by the same principle: ... shift a greater share of taxes away from large corporations and the wealthiest onto the backs of the middle class.”
Cain is embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal. Obama’s campaign slams Romney for being a flip-flopper.
Gingrich sticks his neck out during a debate and proposes a plan to legalize the status of illegal immigrants. The Obama campaign trots out Democratic Texas Rep. Silvestre Reyes to criticize Romney’s “inhumane” position on immigration while all but praising Gingrich for “trying to promote a humane immigration policy for this country.”
Romney has been the most consistent leading candidate, but the attention being paid him is starting to look like a deliberate strategy.
“If (Romney) loses the nomination, (Obama’s) path to re-election is much easier,” said David Damore, a professor of political science at UNLV. “But at the same time, it also serves another purpose: that is, to soften him up for the general.”
Even before he officially declared his candidacy, Romney was widely seen as a favorite for the Republican nomination. Polls have consistently put his odds as the best in the GOP for upsetting Obama, even as he’s gotten stuck in second place when it comes to besting his Republican competitors.
Romney seized the authority of an heir apparent, launching his campaign with a general-election ready summation of the president (“He’s a nice guy,” Romney said of Obama in Las Vegas, “but he just doesn’t know what it takes to get the economy working”) and telling Americans in every debate that “the real problem” underlying everything from housing policy to foreign policy was Obama.
“Romney’s been more aggressive and Romney’s more substantial than answering back to Michele Bachmann or Rick Santorum,” said Eric Herzik, professor of political science at UNR. “So I think the Obama people are just answering back to some charges Romney has made.”
Perhaps it reflects Romney’s strong showing in Nevada in 2008, but Nevadans aren’t yet assuming Gingrich’s rise will last.
“Even if he’s not the choice by sure organizational capabilities, (Romney) is better positioned to weather a storm,” Damore said. “Even if one of these other guys breaks through early on, they don’t have the time to turn that into the resources they need to be able to compete in the next set of contests. Even if Gingrich does come through in Iowa and is able to sustain it, he can’t turn around and go compete in South Carolina, Nevada and Florida.”
But even though Gingrich’s campaign hasn’t pulled in the big bucks like Romney, the former House speaker does have a history of fundraising muscle. And Gingrich told Fox News’ Sean Hannity this week that his campaign is “at least 60 days ahead of where I thought we’d be.”
That is to say, if he holds on, Gingrich might not be the weaker candidate to challenge Obama after all — even if the head-to-head poll matchups now say he is.
“It will be interesting to see if Gingrich becomes the conservative alternative to Romney,” Herzik mused. “It’s possible, but I would say that the Obama people are thinking: ‘OK, when that happens, we’ll deal with it.’
“I’m sure there are people in the Obama campaign who will argue Gingrich is easier to beat,” Herzik continued, “but you can’t build your campaign on that ... In 1980, Jimmy Carter’s people really thought the easiest to beat was going to be Ronald Reagan ... when George (W.) Bush ran against Ann Richards, her campaign strategy was that George Bush was stupid and would self-destruct. And guess what? It didn’t happen.
“You prepare your campaign,” he said. “You can’t prepare a campaign in reaction to someone else.”
Right now, Obama is preparing his campaign in Nevada — and so is Romney.
Neither campaign really ever left the Silver State after the 2008 election. Obama’s other campaign organization, Organizing for America, had a heavy presence during the 2010 midterm elections, while Nevada was a ready base for Romney this summer to do things like film national campaign commercials and unveil a jobs plan. Romney also has the same campaign director that he did last cycle, and the Nevada Democrats are staffing up for both the president’s re-election run and Rep. Shelley Berkley’s bid for the Senate — critical and codependent efforts, they say, to making sure the party maintains influence in Washington, D.C.
If the GOP field were being decided in Nevada, it would still be a pretty safe bet that everyone’s going to get the presidential race they expected.
The last GOP poll in the Silver State put Romney at a sizable lead over Gingrich: 38 percent to Gingrich’s 16. Granted, that was in late October, before Gingrich’s surge in the national polls. But he hasn’t closed a gap that large between himself and Romney elsewhere.
But the national race will not be decided in Nevada alone. Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida’s contests all precede it, and right now Gingrich is leading in three of the four: only New Hampshire still favors Romney, by about 10 points, according to a new Rasmussen poll.
If each candidate can hold on to his current lead, that raises Nevada’s importance to the Romney campaign: We’re batting cleanup after Florida, and if Romney can stage a winning ride through the West (Colorado’s caucuses are three days after Nevada’s), it could level a playing field that now seems skewed.
All of which only makes the Obama campaign’s strategy, at this point, a matter of predictions and preference. In the current lineup, who will emerge to carry the GOP mantle is still anybody’s guess.