Some people claim that the ancient Mayan calendar predicts the end of the world in 2012. While I am generally skeptical toward such doomsday prophecies, recent events have undermined my habitual skepticism and filled me with foreboding premonitions. If 2012 doesn't bring the end of the entire cosmos, there are those who say it is likely to destroy the Republican Party as we know it, and the first cataclysmic event is now less than two weeks away.
Nobody knows which GOP presidential candidate will win the Iowa caucuses Jan. 3. Political wizards keep peering at the poll numbers in search of omens and portents, but only fools read polls as prophecies. As pollsters themselves often caution, a poll is only a "snapshot" of opinion at any given time, and the opinions of Iowa Republicans seem to be shifting back and forth so rapidly that the images are hopelessly blurred. Given the wide disparities in recent survey results from the Hawkeye State, it is tempting to conclude that Iowans are on the verge of a mass psychotic breakdown.
Overwhelmed by the burden of being first in the nation to cast votes that actually count toward the GOP nomination, have the previously steadfast Midwesterners finally snapped under the unbearable stress? Their psyches have been assaulted by an endless barrage of TV attack ads, and they are unable to go out for a cup of coffee without encountering a Republican candidate shaking hands and asking for their votes. Can we blame Iowans if they have succumbed to paranoia, considering how they are being relentlessly stalked by the GOP contenders? Their mailboxes are full of postcards and pamphlets from the candidates, and every time they answer the phone, it's either a presidential campaign volunteer soliciting their support or a pollster conducting another damned survey. It wouldn't be surprising if a few of them flipped out and began babbling gibberish when Gallup or Rasmussen calls. Buried somewhere in those uncategorized responses that pollsters lump together as "other," we can be sure that there must be at least one fed-up citizen who, his supper interrupted by yet another harassing call, screamed into the phone his intention to cast a write-in vote for Harold Stassen.
Psychological trauma is the only plausible explanation for the wild mood swings pollsters are reporting among Iowa Republicans, and the results of these surveys are like a Rorschach inkblot upon which pundits and analysts project their own inner madness. When Newt Gingrich was riding high -- just 10 days ago, he was at 31 percent in the RealClearPolitics average of Iowa polls -- any conservative who criticized Newt's record or rhetoric was accused by Gingrich's supporters of attempting to throw the nomination to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. And in case you haven't followed the 2012 campaign closely, it is here necessary to explain that many conservatives have declared Romney the worst RINO (Republican In Name Only) in all human history, even though many of these same conservatives supported Romney in 2008 when he was the chief rival to Arizona Sen. John McCain, who previously enjoyed the distinction of being the worst RINO in all human history. If the past is prologue, these conservatives will continue denouncing Romney right up until the moment when Romney clinches the nomination, at which point they will begin offering arguments why all patriotic Americans must vote for Romney as the last hope for freedom. For the time being, however, Romney is the dreaded RINO menace whose nomination All True Conservatives are expected to oppose with every fiber of their being and, as recently as a week ago, this meant that no True Conservative could say a discouraging word about Newt Gingrich, who was supposed to be the final champion of the "Anybody But Mitt" movement.
As crazy as that sounds -- because Newt's bona fides as a True Conservative were never exactly impeccable -- it isn't nearly as crazy as what has happened since Newt's poll numbers began sinking. Pundits were thrown into a full-blown schizophrenic frenzy by the prospect that Texas Rep. Ron Paul might win the Iowa caucuses. Since late November, no poll has shown Paul worse than third place in Iowa. Two polls this week have Paul first, with Gingrich slipping to third behind Romney in one poll, and all the way to fourth place in another. According to some conservatives, a Paul victory in the Hawkeye State would be the worst thing to happen to the Republican Party since Lincoln's assassination. It might even be a sign of the final apocalypse foretold by the ancient Mayan calendar.
This doomsday view of Paul's candidacy is due mainly to his foreign policy stances. Having been the 1988 Libertarian Party presidential nominee, Paul is arguably to the left of Barack Obama, which outrages those Republicans who consider an assertive international military posture to be the essence of patriotism. Having spent much time among the Libertarians (I covered their 2008 convention in Denver), I understand their critique of GOP hawkishness, and also know that some conservative Republicans share their concerns about what might be called "strategic overreach" during the post-9/11 Bush presidency.
Of course, Paul takes his anti-interventionist arguments far beyond such mild criticisms of U.S. foreign policy, and his forthright radicalism has attracted a fanatical following that includes some distinctly disreputable elements. Yet as Paul's Iowa poll numbers pushed past the 20-percent threshold and Newt's numbers sank (partly due to a hard-hitting TV ad from Paul blasting Gingrich's "serial hypocrisy"), an absurdly disproportionate panic ensued. The stampede included otherwise sensible friends of mine who were inspired to issue frantic warnings of dire consequences. Ed Morrissey of the popular Hot Air blog wrote, "If Iowa picks Ron Paul as its caucus winner, two things will result. First, Mitt Romney will probably run the table as Republicans everywhere else but Iowa recoil in horror. Second, Iowa will likely end up losing whatever cachet it has managed to build over the last three decades as a first-in-the-nation proving ground for presidential candidates, and the drumbeat to unseat both Iowa and New Hampshire from the front end of the primary system will prove irresistible." Whether you find those predictions feasible or far-fetched, the whole nightmare scenario is contingent on that gigantic hypothetical "if." Despite what the current polls show, an Iowa victory for Ron Paul may yet be averted, and even if he does manage to squeak out a Jan. 3 win, it is by no means certain that this would clinch the nomination for Romney.
Let's start with an obvious fact: Iowans aren't really crazy, no matter what the wildly gyrating poll numbers may suggest. It's been four months since I've been to the Hawkeye State, but the Iowa Republicans I met were decent, sensible people eager to find the strongest possible candidate to take on Barack Obama next fall. While many pundits have bemoaned what they see as a "weak" GOP field for 2012, most of the Iowans I met in August were either (a) enthusiastic supporters of one of the candidates, or (b) genuinely undecided among two or three of the contenders. Two of the candidates who competed in the Aug. 13 straw poll in Ames -- former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and businessman Herman Cain -- have since quit the race, so their erstwhile supporters have been up for grabs, along with admirers of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who didn't say her final "no" until early October. The undecided Iowans have watched a seemingly endless series of televised debates during the up-and-down "Flavor of the Month" cycles that have shaped this campaign. Many of those conservative GOP voters haven't yet firmly made up their minds on which of the remaining candidates they prefer.
So this month's media-driven narrative that the Republican race had come down to a choice between front-runners Romney and Gingrich was at least premature, if not entirely mistaken. Romney and Paul inundated the Iowa airwaves with ads attacking Gingrich, whose campaign did not have the financial resources to answer the attacks in equal measure, and what one pollster called Newt's "rapidly imploding" Iowa numbers was one result. The emergence of Ron Paul as a potential caucus winner was another.
Is the Gingrich collapse irreversible? We don't know, but his prospects are not encouraging. Texas Gov. Rick Perry released a TV ad this week labeling Gingrich the candidate of "K Street" while describing Romney as the candidate of "Wall Street." Now under TV attack from three different rivals in Iowa, Gingrich is also being slammed daily by Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann as one half of a corrupt creature she calls "Newt Romney." Gingrich hastened back to Iowa this week to mount a 44-stop bus tour of the state, a belated concession to the retail aspect of the campaign he has too long neglected. If Newt can't recover, can another of the "Not Mitt" candidates make a last-minute surge to the top of the field in Iowa? Again, we don't know. The answer ultimately lies with Iowa voters, who may be undecided but are not crazy. And candidates are still criss-crossing the wind-swept Midwestern prairies trying to win over those Iowans. If all is lost and hopeless, if the pollsters and pundits are to decide the caucus results, then the actual campaign on the ground in Iowa doesn't matter. But if the actual campaign does matter, then all is not yet lost.
Yesterday I spoke to a Republican presidential candidate who still believes that the campaign matters. Rick Santorum has never been the front-runner in any poll this year, but he was still hopeful Tuesday as he traveled across Iowa between a morning event in Pella and an afternoon event in Mount Pleasant. And the former Pennsylvania senator had good reason to be hopeful. One recent Iowa poll showed him in a three-way tie for fourth place with Bachmann and Perry with 10 percent -- a significant bump from the single-digit numbers he had previously shown. He's now got TV ads on the air citing praise from Palin, Glenn Beck and Mike Huckabee and urging Iowans to "join the fight." A pro-Santorum "super PAC" has released another TV ad calling him "a true conservative we can trust." When I reached Santorum by phone yesterday, he had just been endorsed by two key pro-family leaders in Iowa. "It sends a strong signal to social conservatives… who are coalescing behind our campaign," he said of the support from Bob Vander Plaats and Chuck Hurley which, along with other recent endorsements, indicates "we're picking up momentum" in the final push toward Caucus Night.
All the insanity inspired by the intense struggle in Iowa will be over in two weeks, and nothing would be crazier than to predict that Santorum -- who has lingered near the back of the Republican pack all year -- will emerge with an upset victory Jan. 3. A lot of crazy things have been happening lately in Iowa, however. A hard-charging social conservative winning the Hawkeye State wouldn't be the craziest thing to happen in this campaign leading up to a year that some see as prophetically significant. But the ancient Mayans could not be reached for comment.
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