HAGERSTOWN, Maryland — Hickory trees were blazing brilliant gold in the forest surrounding my home on the western slope of South Mountain as I stepped outside Thursday afternoon to take a call on my cellphone from a well-informed source. My enjoyment of the autumn scenery was diminished only slightly by the cool drizzly overcast weather, but much more by the shadows of gloom gathering over the 2012 Republican presidential campaign, which was the reason for the phone call.
After listening with great interest, I walked inside to the dining room table, picked up a pen and asked my source to repeat the information which I scrawled into a notebook: “Rubio [chief] of staff — CESAR — used to be w/ Romney’s campaign … used his contacts to push primary to 31st because they want Romney in.” A couple more phone calls to D.C. and Florida, a few minutes of online research, and I had an exclusive: “Top Rubio Staffer Reportedly Pushed for Early Florida Primary to Help Romney.” Perhaps not the kind of story Matt Drudge would consider worthy of a banner headline, but a key piece of the puzzle surrounding events that have hopelessly scrambled the 2012 schedule.
What my tipster explained was that Cesar Conda, influential chief of staff for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, had been a key force behind the scenes urging Florida Republican officials to move their state’s primary — which should have taken place in March, according to the schedule approved by the Republican National Committee — to Jan. 31. Florida’s fateful decision Sept. 30 set in motion a chain of events which, as matters now stand, could result in New Hampshire holding its first-in-the-nation primary as early as December 6, less than two months from now. Although Florida had long threatened to break the RNC-imposed rule protecting the four states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina) that traditionally hold early nominating contests, the timing of Florida’s final decision — immediately after Herman Cain won a Sept. 24 straw-poll in Orlando — aroused deep suspicions from conservatives.
Conda is well known as a supporter of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has led the GOP 2012 field for most of the past year. On the day two weeks ago when a Republican-controlled special committee in Tallahassee set Florida’s Jan. 31 primary date, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was still leading the Real Clear Politics poll average with 26.5 percent to Romney’s 23 percent. However, Romney was regaining lost ground, as Perry’s support collapsed in the wake of his embarrassing performances in three September debates. It appeared that Romney, with vastly superior fund-raising potential and a top-quality campaign organization, was clearly once more a pre-emptive favorite to win the nomination, and Florida’s move would help maximize Romney’s advantage. Or at least that was the conventional wisdom of pundits and Republican insiders, especially because a front-loaded primary schedule would make it more difficult for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to make a late entry into the field. Five days after Florida announced its primary would be Jan. 31, Christie said his final “no.” By the time Christie made his inevitable endorsement of Romney, major GOP funders like Georgette Mosbacher were already aboard the Romney bandwagon.
For Rubio’s chief of staff — formerly an aide to Dick Cheney and a top D.C. lobbyist — to be a Romney supporter is scarcely surprising, nor was I particularly shocked when my source said Conda had been encouraging Florida to jump ahead in the 2012 schedule. The early-primary madness gripping Florida Republicans has been well-nigh universal for months. A lone voice of sanity warning against the move to January seems to have been the state’s RNC committeeman, Paul Senft, who chastised Florida officials with a reminder, “Republicans have always been law abiding people who obey the rules.” True, but Republicans are also creatures of habit, and few habits have become more predictable than the GOP’s “It’s His Turn” principle of choosing presidential nominees. Romney was the chief rival to Sen. John McCain in the 2008 primaries and has been building his 2012 campaign ever since. By long-standing Republican tradition, it’s Mitt’s turn, and no one should be surprised that the organized forces of the party establishment (evidently including Cesar Conda) are doing everything in their power to deliver the nomination to him.
So far, so good for the conventional wisdom which would have us believe that Romney is inevitable as the Republican 2012 standard-bearer. Even conservatives determined to resist Romney’s nomination — many of whom are still holding out hope that Perry can somehow regain his footing — seem to be trying to convince themselves that Romney wouldn’t be so bad. Why, however, did my item yesterday about Cesar Conda and the Florida primary provoke such a phenomenal reaction, getting re-Tweeted more than 200 times in the span of a few hours? Why did Michelle Malkin react, “Damn, I hate politics”? Because the Conda story seemed to implicate Marco Rubio in the insider maneuverings to coronate Romney, and Rubio was one of the greatest heroes of the Tea Party uprising. Indeed, if the GOP Establishment had gotten its way, Rubio would not today be one of the most promising young Republicans in the Senate.
In May 2009, Florida’s GOP chairman Jim Greer endorsed Gov. Charlie Crist in the 2010 Senate race, more than 15 months before the primary. National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman Sen. John Cornyn of Texas also endorsed Crist, who was then leading Rubio by more than 30 points in the polls. Greer and Cornyn were both acting on the conventional wisdom that Crist, with statewide name recognition and proven fund-raising abilities, would be the safe bet to hold the seat being vacated by the retirement of Republican Sen. Mel Martinez. Outraged by this attempt to anoint Crist — who had endorsed President Obama’s deficit-spending stimulus program — conservatives rallied behind Rubio. Within a year, as the Tea Party movement boosted Rubio to a commanding lead in the primary polls, Crist quit the GOP and launched a doomed third-party bid. (Greer resigned in disgrace and is now awaiting trial on corruption charges.)
Just as the Republican elite’s attempt to anoint Crist backfired, sparking a Tea Party uprising that carried Rubio to the Senate, there may be a possibility that the behind-the-scenes effort to anoint Romney could ignite a grassroots movement to unite conservatives behind Herman Cain’s surging candidacy. The strength of Cain’s surge may have been underestimated in the conventional wisdom of late September, when Florida Republicans made the decision that scrambled the campaign schedule. And the Atlanta businessman got an unexpected boost on Oct. 5 when former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin announced she would not be a candidate in 2012. Many of her most fervent supporters had waited for months hoping she’d jump in the race and, when she finally said “no,“ Palin singled out Cain for praise in an interview on Greta Van Susteren’s Fox News program. Whether Palin’s supporters took this as a signal or whether they naturally gravitated to Cain’s populist “outsider” appeal, the effect is noticeable: Cain’s RCP poll average on Oct. 4 was 13.7 percent, but in the four national polls taken since Palin announced her decision not to run, Cain’s average is 26.3 percent. In the latest Rasmussen survey, Cain is tied with Romney, with Perry fading to single digits in fourth place behind Newt Gingrich.
The GOP Establishment’s alignment behind Romney has produced a Newtonian counter-reaction, and the voices of Establishment spokesmen deriding Cain’s chances of winning are likely to solidify Tea Party support behind the Atlanta businessman. Last night, Karl Rove (a pundit especially loathed by Palin’s fans) told Sean Hannity that he doubts Cain can sustain his current momentum, saying Cain was “coming up short” and predicting his campaign is “not gonna have a nice ending.”
Of course, Rove never predicted Cain’s October surge, and how this year’s Republican campaign will end is probably beyond anyone’s power to predict, when no one yet knows whether the New Hampshire primary will be in December or January. The odds favor Romney, but the odds have always favored Romney. For the past three weeks, events have seemed to be accelerating toward some kind of apocalyptic climax, the outcome obscured by ominous clouds of uncertainty. For now, there is only the campaign trail ahead, which will bring the candidates together Tuesday in Las Vegas for a CNN debate in which Cain will defend his newfound contender status against his Republican rivals. Autumn leaves are falling, and the days are rapidly running down toward the time when at last the predictions of polls and pundits will be less important than the decisions of actual voters.