But after watching the returns from the Republican primary in my home state of Alabama, I can hardly keep my thoughts on cute squirrels at the birdfeeder or the growing dog hair piles. I realize most people outside of the deep south weren't that tuned in to the voting in Alabama and Mississippi yesterday, but in this confusing race for the Republican nomination, I was pretty intrigued.
Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, came in as the unexpected winner in both states. He beat Newt Gingrich, who formerly represented Georgia and was thought to have a homefield advantage, and Mitt Romney, who is as un-southern as they come, and was thought to have no clear advantage other than his war chest. Ron Paul spent no meaningful time or money in either state, and finished with about 5% of the vote in both states.
Lacking anything intelligent or helpful to say after Santorum's gleeful speech, the pundits immediately began discussing the various strategies for and against whittling this down to a one-candidate race. If you want to know the different plans suggested by these talking heads trying to fill airtime, you were probably tuned in, so I won't repeat them. Better analysis can be found at Real Clear Politics or Politico, if you need a dose of expertise.
While reading a few of the articles, one of my daughters (who are both home sick today) came downstairs to get medicine and a hot drink. We began discussing the results and I got off on a tangent, which is the same thing as a lecture by my kids' standards, and I stumbled on a brilliant idea for the Republican strategy.
No one should drop out.
The very fact that no one candidate represents a majority of the Republican electorate could be construed as an strategic advantage for the GOP, for the remainder of the primary calendar.
If a single, preordained candidate is shoved down the collective throats of the divided party, you could easily end up with a bunch of disaffected voters who decide to sit out this time around. No retired general making an impassioned speech at the convention will make it palatable to a dovish Ron Paul supporter to cast his vote for hawkish Rick Santorum. No GOP official can construct a party platform that will help Newt Gingrich's visionaries embrace Mitt Romney's plodding march to the center. None of the candidates have it within their power, influence or personality to unite the party.
Only one candidate can do that: President Obama.
With only one rival to focus on, the president has a rather simple job. Spend his considerable financial and political assets attacking that one rival on their most vulnerable weaknesses. Depending on the opponent, that could be described as difficult and expensive, or cheap and easy.
Take Newt Gingrich, for example. He has multiple marriages to exploit, and would give the USA it's first known First Lady with mistress credentials. Obama can counter Newt's claims of $2.50/gallon gasoline as pandering without proof. Though he rose to power after the Republican revolution of the 1990s, he was later sanctioned by his collegues for ethical misconduct. These stories and others will make for excellent targets for President Obama's supporters and Super-PACs.
Mitt Romney doesn't have the dirty laundry of the former Speaker, but as the grandfather of Obamacare, we can expect lots of ads depicting the former governor of Massachusetts as a big-government Republican who actually approves of the president's signature legislation. His public gaffes that bring attention to his wealth and status (firing and laying off employees, owning multiple Cadillacs, having friends who own NASCAR teams) invite contrast with Obama's in-the-trenches days as a community organizer. And Mr. Romney has committed some very public flip-flops on hot-button issues, which the Democrats will have a field day capitalizing on. He is seen as an accommodating Republican governor in a very liberal state, and many of his accommodations lend themselves to scrutiny, if not lampooning.
Rick Santorum, with his penchant for going off-script, is a veritable candidate covered in targets. Because he talks like I do, without a final thought in mind that helps him stay on topic and out of trouble, he is truly a candidate wearing the matador's cape. Name an issue and he's said something that can be edited and spun to make him sound insane. Birth control, educational choice, war with Iran, border fences and college snobs - he can make his own common sense sound like drivel if he is allowed to keep talking. President Obama and his supporters can complete their opposition research in about 5 minutes - Santorum has left a trail of tittilating tidbits that will make for excellent fast-paced, cutaway-and-caption ads and crazy-sounding sound bytes.
Ron Paul probably can't get to the level of a one-on-one campaign against Obama, so imagining that battle and how the ad wizards and spin doctors would handle it is probably a true exercise in futility. Sen. Paul is so different from any candidate we've had in recent history, the options for opposing him are limitless. For sheer tenacity and consistency, he should be admired and given a hearing. Disagreeing with him is one thing - but mock him at your peril.
So there is not a Teflon candidate among these four. They all have flaws, weaknesses and tendencies to say more than necessary and talk when they should listen. Several columnists have attempted to assemble the perfect nominee from the best of each man's parts, but that only yields a non-existent Frankenstein.
Assuming the supreme Republican goal is to make Obama a one-term president, then I suggest that all the candidates stay in the race, if possible, until the convention. As long as the Obama campaign and the PACs supporting it have multiple opponents on diverse fronts, their battle will be expensive, indirect and tiring. With the convention 5 months away, the President and his supporters must expend capital and effort trying to cover all bases. They have to refute charges of candidates they will never face in the general election. (Sidebar: They are already doing this, quite expensively, with an ad targeting Sarah Palin, who is not on the ticket or likely to be. Why go to the expense when the HBO movie reportedly discredits her sufficiently for his supporters' purposes? Truthfully, I don't have a clue.)
There is much speculation that this four-way race and the associated unpleasantries are bad for the GOP, and hurt the party in the eyes of independent voters. There are those who say that this is the nastiest primary season ever. But since they always seem to say that, and one never knows how different people measure nastiness at different times with different contributors, it's hard to credit that assertion.
Others claim that it is preferable for the Republicans to vet each other, so that all of the potentially toxic stuff will be old news by the time the President begins campaigning in earnest. I don't know whether that point outweighs the idea that the party is tearing itself apart, which is just one of the inflammatory terms used to describe this long primary season. I'm inclined to believe that it will take more to hurt the GOP than this nasty nominating process, but for dissenting opinions, look no further than your nightly news. Or check out what our friendly neighbors in Canada think of the matter in this piece from CBC.ca:
Some speculate a continued battle among Republicans could weaken the party overall, as Democrats sit back, gird themselves for victory and watch the attack before a candidate is named - finally - at the GOP convention in Tampa, Fla., in August.
Or, in the words of David Axelrod, chief strategist for the President,
“While they’re destroying each other, we’re building a campaign nationally.” (link to The Hill article here.)
I think about the words used to describe political contests: battleground, victory, campaign, fight, challenge. It would be difficult to write about the election without war analogies. (I have to say I haven't seen "gird" used in a while and I thank the Canadians for bringing it back.) I think these four candidates should have a look at one of those old movies where one lone guy has to fight against a coordinated team. The outnumbered guy has to be very careful, conserve his energy and only strike when he can be assured of landing a punch. The team can hang back, driving their opponent to make tactical mistakes due to confusion or exhaustion. Doesn't this sound like a good strategy?
Likewise, each GOP candidate can choose just one or two areas of the President's record to focus on for the remainder of the primary season. Romney can pick apart the ridiculous budget's wasteful spending and marginal job growth; Santorum can concentrate on policies that have disenchanted the Christian right and traditional values voters; let Newt work on energy independence and problems associated with implementing new energy technologies before they or the markets are ready; and let Ron Paul be in charge of showing how Obama's cabinet and regulatory authorities are crippling economic growth.
If they can all afford to stay in until August, imagine the wear-and-tear they can wreak on the President's campaign. Like the man who dies from a thousand paper cuts, four candidates needling away at the administration's many failures may do more damage than one fallible nominee stuck duking it out, mano-a-mano, in the permanent media spotlight.
Even if the party and the candidates decide to shuffle, redeal and name a nominee before the convention, they can at least take heart in the other recent comment about the GOP primary by David Axelrod: “I do think it’s easier to raise money when you have one opponent." So I ask: why make it "easier?"
This is a very strange primary, where different candidates have bounced in and out of favor, attracting scrutiny and criticism as they rise, and as they sink, they are disdained or ignored. It's kind of like watching the arcade game called Whack-A-Mole, though not quite as fun. But if these guys can just take a few more whacks over the next five months, they may wear their opposition down.
And this voter's advice to the Republicans candidates - if they are listening.