It’s a tale of two candidates, at this point the two frontrunners in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, each trying to create contrast not only with President Obama but also with the other. With each passing day, the contrast is becoming clearer — and in a way that could help Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty overcome former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s early lead in the Republican horserace.
It started several weeks ago with Romney’s “no apologies” approach to Romneycare, a Massachusetts version of Obamacare no matter how hard Mitt Romney tries to frame it differently. Even if it were substantially different, neither the “mainstream” media nor President Obama would let the electorate know it with Obama repeatedly thanking Romney for clearing a path for the president’s signature “achievement.”
This is in stark contrast to Pawlenty’s repudiation of his own prior position on cap-and-trade. Pawlenty has said he made a mistake and has apologized — which he should — for having ever supported that policy: “I’ve said I was wrong. It was a mistake, and I’m sorry. You’re going to have a few clunkers in your record, and we all do, and that’s one of mine. I just admit it. I don’t try to duck it, bob it, weave it, try to explain it away. I’m just telling you, I made a mistake.”
Round one to Pawlenty, according to this judge.
Now comes round two, each man’s opening statements in Iowa.
In his remarks last week, somewhat overshadowed by President O’bama’s visit to his ancestral homeland (is he still “black enough” to be president?), Tim Pawlenty came out — and I repeat this was in Iowa — against ethanol subsidies:
We need to phase out subsidies across all sources of energy and all industries, including ethanol. We simply can’t afford them anymore. Some people will be upset by what I’m saying. Conventional wisdom says you can’t talk about ethanol in Iowa or Social Security in Florida or financial reform on Wall Street. But someone has to say it. Someone has to finally stand up and level with the American people. Someone has to lead — I will.
Romney, the would-be conservative, came out with this: “I support the subsidy of ethanol. I believe it’s an important part of our energy solution in this country.” Again, Romney’s words could easily have come from Barack Obama.
For this judge, that’s round two for Pawlenty as well.
But I’m just one judge, and clearly some people disagree with me. In the past week, political betting has had Mitt Romney hovering around a 28% probability of being the nominee with Pawlenty falling off from 24% to 19% recently following a jump up from about 17% when Mike Huckabee got out of the race.
So what’s going on with these two very different approaches to ethanol strategery? Mitt Romney knows that he’s the frontrunner, though not necessarily in Iowa where he lost by a wide nine percent margin to Mike Huckabee in 2008 — a loss that some people say crippled Romney’s 2008 campaign. He’d like to have the momentum of Iowa so is willing to pander to those voters on the chance of winning a plurality.
Pawlenty knows that he’s expected to pick up many of Huckabee’s evangelical Christian voters if the existing field ended up being the actual field come caucus time. But in the last week, the betting odds of Sarah Palin running for president have jumped from about 37% to about 46%, and actually traded over 60% a couple of times in the past several days. Her odds of receiving the nomination have gone from just over 6% to about 8.5%. At the same time, Texas Governor Rick Perry’s odds of earning the nomination have jumped from about 2.5% to 6% with his just mentioning that he’d “think about” running for the presidency.
In other words, Palin’s and Perry’s gains have come directly from Pawlenty’s support, at least according to those willing to bet on such things.
Pawlenty is therefore thinking that the evangelical vote will be split (including with Michele Bachmann) and that Romney may well win Iowa by consolidating the “moderate” vote — not that that’s a very large number among Iowa Republican caucus participants. On the other hand, if Pawlenty can come in second in Iowa, and first among those running as true conservatives (whether or not he is one I’ll leave to your determination, at least for today), he could be in good position to run in New Hampshire and South Carolina. After all, Mitt Romney lost both of those states to John McCain in 2008 while nominally running as the conservative to McCain’s “maverick” aka moderate. This time around, Romney’s re-casting as a moderate hardly seems likely to endear him to conservative primary participants. It’s just a question of whether they think they have a better option.
While Romney has a geographical advantage in New Hampshire and the edge of a large Mormon population in Nevada, those races — especially New Hampshire — aren’t certain. Romney lost New Hampshire to John McCain by 5.5% and is already watching his 2008 supporters go a little wobbly despite a March poll showing Romney with a commanding lead in the Granite State. South Carolina is particularly unfriendly territory for Mitt Romney; in 2008 he came in fourth behind McCain, Huckabee, and Fred Thompson. Therefore, Pawlenty is wisely positioning himself wherever possible as the true conservative and as the non-Romney.
Indeed, Romney did Pawlenty quite a favor by coming out for ethanol subsidies, a position that is anathema to the GOP base in most of the nation. Romney’s view is anti-free market, non-conservative, and little more than obvious pandering to Iowans who want to put their hands in the rest of the nation’s pockets. This particular contrast should be used to great benefit by Pawlenty outside the Corn Belt.
Contrast is key in elections. So far, Tim Pawlenty’s contrasts with Mitt Romney are to the Minnesotan’s benefit. With Romney’s position on Romneycare (and Obama’s repeatedly thanking him for it), Pawlenty looks likely to offer a bigger and better contrast to President Obama than Mitt Romney does. The more the eventual Republican candidate sounds like Barack Obama on policy, the more likely we are to get another four years of government by community organizers, radical environmentalists, and race-oriented ideologues.
All this still doesn’t include Romney’s huge problem of appearing “plastic” while Pawlenty appears much more “real.” Sure, real often shows more flaws than plastic, but after four years of a president who did little that he claimed he’d do and was little like who he claimed to be, people will be looking for authenticity.
Can Pawlenty’s greater authenticity overcome Romney’s more developed political and fund-raising organizations and higher name recognition? At this point, I think the betting odds are about right, namely that Romney still has a modest edge in the race for the nomination. But Romney could be just one bad debate away from another collapse. And as long as he keeps supporting policies that only a liberal should love, it’s hard not to hope for just such a debate debacle.