Less than five weeks before the first votes are cast, Republican presidential candidates have entered a new phase as each tries to break from the crowded field by drawing sharp distinctions with other competitors.
Former Governor Mitt Romney, a front-runner who has yet to break past about 30 percent support from Republicans in national polls, last night sought to slow the momentum of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
“I think to get President Obama out of office, you’re going to have to bring something to the race that’s different than what he brings,” Romney said on Fox News. “He’s a lifelong politician.”
During a campaign tour through South Carolina earlier yesterday, Gingrich sought to raise doubts about Romney’s commitment to such core Republican ideals as opposition to abortion rights and tax hikes.
“When you have a 90 percent American Conservative Union rating for your entire lifetime, there’s a clear contrast,” Gingrich said, referring to his own record.
In a South Carolina radio interview on Nov. 28, Gingrich said he doesn’t claim to be “the perfect” candidate. “I just claim to be a lot more conservative than Mitt Romney, and a lot more electable than anybody else,” he said.
The Other Six
As Gingrich and Romney took aim at each other, the six other candidates also searched for an edge that could catapult them in the polls. A Nov. 20 nationwide CNN poll showed Gingrich with 24 percent support, Romney at 21 percent, Herman Cain at 15 percent, and all other aspirants below 10 percent.
Cain, the former Godfather’s Pizza chief executive officer, is reassessing his candidacy after an Atlanta woman on Nov. 28 claimed to have had a sporadic, 13-year affair with him. He’s also been dogged by accusations from other women of sexual harassment.
A collapse in support for Cain could provide an opening for other candidates to expand their bases.
Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann has been among the most willing to draw contrasts. In a Nov. 22 debate, Bachmann and Romney dubbed as “amnesty” Gingrich’s proposal to allow some illegal aliens who arrived in the U.S. long ago to legally remain in the country.
Speaking to reporters this morning in Greenville, South Carolina, Gingrich called Bachmann “factually challenged” for her claim.
“When I was a teacher, I occasionally had a student who couldn’t figure out where things were or what things were or what the right date was,” he said, standing in Tommy’s Country Ham House. “When that happens, you feel sorry that they are so factually challenged.”
Gingrich’s South Carolina visit illustrated his campaign’s re-energized national strategy. Book signings have been replaced with town-hall meetings. Field teams and state-specific websites are being launched in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, the early-voting states in the nomination fight. And the campaign is infused with a new sense of confidence about its ability to compete in a drawn-out primary race.
“If we do well in South Carolina and win in Florida, down goes Willard,” said R.C. Hammond, Gingrich’s campaign spokesman, referring to Romney by his first name.
South Carolina Leader
An American Research Group survey released yesterday showed 33 percent of likely South Carolina Republican primary voters backing Gingrich, up from 8 percent in October, compared with 22 percent supporting Romney.
Gingrich is working to avoid the fate of some of his rivals, who surged in the polls only to plummet after weak debate performances or other errors.
After reporting $1.2 million in debts in a Sept. 30 disclosure report, the Gingrich campaign said it has raised about $4 million since then. It now has 10 paid staff and has opened five offices in South Carolina. In New Hampshire, six aides are working out of a new office in the center of downtown Manchester. And in Iowa, Craig Schoenfeld and Katie Koberg, two of six staffers in the state who resigned on June 9, rejoined the campaign mid-November as senior advisers.
“We first started going across the state in early September,” said James Epley, the campaign chairman for Beaufort County, South Carolina. “We’ve seen it grow from there.”
Time Running Out
Still, some Republicans question whether Gingrich has enough time to build an effective operation.
“Highly motivated volunteers can trump a lot of things -- just not time,” said Jim Dyke, a South Carolina-based Republican strategist.
In addition to his immigration stance, Gingrich has worked to explain to voters how he earned millions after resigning the speakership and his House seat in 1999.
“I did no lobbying of any kind -- period,” Gingrich said. “I’m going to be really direct, OK? I was charging $60,000 a speech. And the number of speeches was going up, not down.”
That steady stream of income, said Gingrich, allowed him to only do consulting work for clients he supported.
“If I didn’t like the issue, I didn’t deal with it,” Gingrich said “If I didn’t agree with you, I didn’t say it.”
His clients included Freddie Mac, a mortgage company taken into government conservatorship in 2008 after its stake in failed subprime loans pushed it to the brink of collapse.
“I can’t tell you which distortion my opponents are going to raise,” he said. “I can tell you this: I will be prepared to answer every one of them.”
New Hampshire’s Manchester Union Leader’s Nov. 27 endorsement of Gingrich added a sense of momentum to his campaign. “We would rather back someone with whom we may sometimes disagree than one who tells us what he thinks we want to hear,” the newspaper wrote.
Still, the former speaker’s background bothered some voters, who said his past advocacy work, two divorces and admissions of marital infidelity would make it difficult for him to win in 2012.
“My concern is that Gingrich has had a high negative image in many, many areas in the past,” said Jim McGrath, of Sun City, South Carolina. “How is he going to overcome that with the independent voter?”