For the last four months, I've been absolutely convinced it's Romney all the way. It seemed pretty obvious that Gingrich isn't electable, and the percentage of people who don't like him - his unfavorable rating - seemed just too high to overcome. And the prevailing attitude about Romney among Republican loyalists seemed to echo this sentiment. They may not really like Romney, but he's theirs, and they'll vote for him. Resigned acceptance. Even up to just three days ago, I sat with my brother-in-law and nephew providing the absolute scenario that Romney's victory was inevitable. But based on Romney's recent performances, I've changed my mind. Newt might just have a shot.
Occupy Wall Street may not be occuping much actual space anymore, and their supporters may never have completely coalesced around specific demands. But what they were able to articulate incredibly well, and quite succinctly in their "We are the 99%" is the unfairness of income inequality in this country. And this looming issue has deep hooks in the campaign. Although Romney has tried on the campaign trail to tell people he's one of them, one of the 99%, it's a tough argument to continue to make when we all know he is actually a super rich guy, whose tax rate is the same as someone who goes to work everyday making $80k.
It's not that making a lot of money is a bad thing. Americans are okay with wealth, they aspire to it, and in fact have always been okay with uber rich presidential candidates. Roosevelt, Kennedy, Reagan - all had a lot of money. But those candidates made people feel they cared about the middle class. Even after Romney released his tax returns, revealing he made close to 24 million last year, and paid a tax rate of less than 14%, he might have been alright - if he had been able to handle the issue well in the media. But he didn't. He fumbled at every juncture. He is awkward, clearly uncomfortable about the topic, doesn't come off as relaxed or warm - or human - and because of the way he "flip flopped" on whether or not he was even going to release his returns, or release years farther back than 2010, it makes everyone figure that he's got something bigger to hide.
When Romney tells a roomful of unemployed people he's unemployed like them, or makes a 10k bet with Perry in a debate, or says 360k, his earnings from appearances, isn't a lot of money, it's the same as when Bush Sr. went to the grocery store and was dumbounded by how a scanner worked. It shows he's out of touch - and absolutely not part of the 99%.
Romney's inability to handle this issue leaves him vulnerable on two fronts.The first is electability. Obama's big theme in the campaign will be about fairness. Making sure everyone gets a fair shot, everyone pays their fair share and plays by the same rules. It's beyond fairness in tax code - it will translate into fairness about entitlements, investment, education, etc. And there sits Romney who embodies the picture of unfairness. He is the poster child illustrating that the burden isn't being shared equally, that the system is inherently unfair. With Romney, Obama couldn't have a better opponent to help paint the picture so vividly. It's one thing to make a shitload of money off of your money - and not work - it's the American dream. It's another thing to make that money and say it's fair just because it happens to be legal. Beyond his tax returns, he'll have an even harder time handling this issue when it is pounded in the media that when a bi-partisan Congress tried to change the laws and repeal carried interest only 15%, Romney and Bain fought it big with lots of money and lots of lobbyists. Electability is one of the most important things to Republicans. If this issue becomes too big, one that leaves Romney too vulnerable, one that Obama can slam dunk, Republicans will start thinking maybe Gingrich is more electable. And they wouldn't necessarily be wrong.
The second, is that Romney clearly can't handle the stress. When he was running a laid back campaign, watching the "non-Romney" candidates rise and fall, he inched along just fine. But when pushed, when he has to play offense, he fumbles the ball every time. No one wants to vote for a guy who can't close the deal. And that is now Romney. He comes off as phoney, inauthentic and on this issue, nervous and untrusting. Those qualities are not qualities that get you elected in a national election. And with these flaws, it will be too easy for Obama to position Romney just where he wants him.
National elections are long, some say too long. But they do separate the boys from the men. The candidates live through extreme pressure on the campaign trail. Watching them live daily through that, handling the inbound and the outbound messaging, managing themselves and their staff, handling - and manipulating the media, proving their ability to build and lead an organized, well run campaign. Huge pressures. And if you crack on the campaign trail, it's a pretty sure sign you'll crack in the White House - if you actually make it there. Great line from Ryan Gossling in the Ides of March. "This is the big leagues. It's mean. When you make a mistake, you lose the right to play."
I'm not saying that Newt still doesn't have the ability and the time to make some monumental gaffe that would deliver the nomination to Romney. But while even a few days ago I was absolutely certain Romeny was the inevitable choice, I'm now thinking Gingrinch just might be able to pull it off. Another day, another 24 hour news cycle, I may change my mind again. But today, I'm at 60/40, giving Romney a slight edge. Time will tell.