After Mitt Romney was declared the winner of the Florida Republican primary, Newt Gingrich addressed his supporters from a podium bearing this sign: "46 States to Go." That statement was literally true, but its implication — that all states are created equal when it comes to a nomination campaign — was not. For better or worse, the primary and caucus schedule is front-loaded, and early states have disproportionate influence in bestowing momentum and winnowing the field.
So with three primaries and a caucus behind us, what have we learned from this important, if not necessarily decisive, phase of the contest? More about the candidates as campaigners than as potential presidents. And less than we would have liked about their differences on the issues.
After a panic-inducing primary loss to Gingrich in South Carolina, Romney has reclaimed his status as front-runner, to such an extent that President Obama is now shadowboxing with him. But Romney's comeback in Florida is attributable less to his message than to sharpened debate skills, good organization and, last but not least, a blizzard of attack ads aired by a technically independent "super PAC."
Even then, Romney has not clinched the nomination. More than half of Florida voters preferred another candidate. Despite Romney's shameless tacking to the right (or perhaps because of it), many conservatives still distrust him. And regardless of ideology, voters in the contests ahead may be put off by Romney's seeming insulation from the problems of Americans less blessed than he is. The latter liability is the common denominator in Romney's litany of gaffes — from his description of his $374,327 income from speaking fees as "not very much" to his comment that "I'm not concerned about the very poor" because, after all, they have a safety net.
Romney may be unstoppable, given his improvement as a campaigner, his willingness to pander, his campaign's obscene financial advantage and the party establishment's frantic rush to preempt a Gingrich nomination. But Gingrich and Rick Santorum insist they are in the race for the long haul, as does Ron Paul, whose not-so-hidden agenda is to spread the gospel of "liberty," not to win the nomination.
So more debates (and advertising) lie ahead. The question is whether Romney and Gingrich can curb the ad hominem attacks and sharpen the policy differences between them. Reorienting the campaign in that way might be good politics as well as edifying for voters. In his Florida victory speech, Romney dismissed concerns in the party about a prolonged and acrimonious primary season. "A competitive primary does not divide us," he said. "It prepares us." This year, what the Republicans might have to prepare for is a recycling by their Democratic opponent of the (often accurate) insults they hurled at one another during the primaries. Democratic strategists need only comb the Republican debates for sound bites to portray Romney as a heartless capitalist or flip-flopper. And if Romney can call Gingrich an influence-peddler, why can't Obama?
Despite the mudslinging in TV spots and in the debates, the campaign has not been entirely devoid of issues. On several subjects, not surprisingly, the candidates agree. All four are antiabortion (though Paul would outlaw the procedure at the state level), and all oppose "Obamacare." Although they differ on specifics, they all would alter and simplify the tax system. But the debates also exposed clear differences. On immigration, for instance, Gingrich rejects the idea — popular in his party — of deporting all illegal immigrants; he favors a form of legalization for those with strong family and community ties, like grandmothers and people "in your church." Romney, after originally suggesting that he regarded such an approach as amnesty, later said that "I'm not going around and rounding people up and deporting them." But he still sees "self-deportation" as a serious answer to illegal immigration. On the economy, Santorum parts with his rivals by emphasizing tax relief for American manufacturing, a rejection of the "level playing field" and evidence of the populism that has characterized his campaign.
By definition, a primary election campaign is aimed at the party faithful. It is also an axiom of American politics that presidential candidates move away from the center to appeal to their ideological bases during primary season and then pivot back for the general election. Yet that maneuver is complicated not only by some voters' long memories but also by technological advances that allow YouTube viewers — or the political opposition — to exhume outrageous utterances from earlier in the campaign. Whether the Republican race continues for months or is abruptly resolved, Romney and Gingrich would be wise to retire the personal attacks and focus more on the issues.