AP Photo/Eric Gay, Pool
Friday, Dec. 16, 2011 | 1:36 a.m.
WASHINGTON — The Republican presidential candidates gathered in Iowa for a debate Thursday night that’s probably their last as a seven-piece band; the next one isn’t until after New Hampshire’s primary, and by then, one or two contenders will have likely disbanded their campaigns.
While none of the presidential hopefuls have set foot in Nevada since October, and the Silver State doesn’t group up for its caucuses for another month after the primaries begin, what happens in Iowa and New Hampshire play a big role in the ultimate role Nevada will play in the party’s national selection process.
Nevada is a small state with only a few electoral votes, so if one candidate sweeps the first four states (South Carolina and Florida follow close on the heels of Iowa and N.H.), the outcome of our caucuses isn’t going to matter much.
But if several candidates split the earliest spoils, the Silver State’s could become an early tiebreaker — a position that would catapult Nevada to an electoral relevance it’s not yet enjoyed.
Six of the seven candidates toiled Thursday night to make sure Nevada gets that chance.
(Okay, their intention was arguably far more self-motivated than that — like I said, they really haven’t been thinking about Nevada lately. But the effect is the same.)
In the last few weeks, Newt Gingrich enjoyed a meteoric rise in national and three of the four earliest state polls. He’s now solidly in first place over Mitt Romney, whom it was long assumed would lead the GOP pack heading into the primary and caucus season.
That put a target on Gingrich’s back that other candidates, from Romney on down, availed themselves of Thursday night.
Gingrich took fire from Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul — who could actually come in first in Iowa — about his positions on immigration and abortion, and his advisory relationship to Freddie Mac, from whom he earned $1.6 million during the run-up to the housing bubble burst that set off the economic downturn.
“We can’t have as our nominee for the Republican Party someone who continues to stand for Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae,” Bachmann said. “You don’t need to be in the technical definition of being a lobbyist to still do influence peddling in Washington DC.”
“I did no lobbying of any kind for any organization,” Gingrich retorted. “I only chose to work with people whose values I shared, and having people have a chance to buy a house is something I still think is important in America.”
The negative scrutiny is par for the course of being in first place. But if it successfully knocks potential voters away from Gingrich, the most likely beneficiary of his losses will be Mitt Romney.
Romney, who spent the bulk of the cycle stoically avoiding any direct engagement with his GOP competitors, broke that streak and started going after Gingrich last week, suggesting among other things that Gingrich was too “zany” to be president. It’s a sign the former Massachusetts governor is taking the former speaker’s lead far more seriously than that of candidates that peaked before.
Romney has been holding a national second place seed since Gingrich’s rise, and is first in the most recent polling out of New Hampshire and Nevada. He likely needs to win both to keep his presidential aspirations alive until Super Tuesday (March 6), when states in which he is more widely popular than in South Carolina and Florida vote.
Romney did his best to act presidential Thursday night as he made his final pitch to a national audience.
“The American people care very deeply about having a president who can get America right again,” he said when asked about his electability in a general contest against President Barack Obama. “I understand from my successes and failures what it’s going to take to get American jobs.”
Romney recalled his history as a businessman with successes and failures, and rattled off how he’d challenge Obama to an economic reckoning over the auto bailout if criticized that in his consulting practice, he had directed some corporate restructurings that resulted in laying off employees.
Romney said he'd learned from his mistakes and challenges, both in the private sector and as the governor of Massachusetts, and called himself “a leader able to work across party lines.”
He wasn’t the only one trying to wrest the political spotlight and electability mantle away from Gingrich.
Paul cited himself as a candidate with “an American philosophy” who could bring Independents and even Democrats along to vote for him.
“Leadership is action, not words,” Huntsman offered to explain his presidential credentials. “People want to be told where you can take them and then, they want you to deliver.”
Those three — Romney, Paul, and Huntsman — stand the best chance of shaking up the first two states. In the south, things are more firmly leaning toward Gingrich.
But that narrow entry to the leader’s circle is only motivating some of these candidates.
Paul is currently polling within the margin of error to challenge Gingrich for first place in Iowa. He has an extremely well-organized, in-state ground game.
Meanwhile, Romney is leading Gingrich in New Hampshire, where Huntsman is posting a double-digit third. Both have to be hoping that Gingrich’s surge at least starts to turn into a sink, as all the other come-from-behind frontrunners’ bids have, before the primaries begin.
But Gingrich doesn’t rattle easy. What gets thrown at him, he might throw back.
“You know, Neil, I sometimes get accused of using language that's too strong, so I've been standing here editing,” he said to one of the Fox News anchors sponsoring Thursday night’s debate in Iowa, before answering a question about the Obama administration’s handling of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast. “I'm very concerned about not appearing to be ‘zany’.”