Here are two ways to look at what just transpired in New Hampshire:
- The actual outcome, which was about as expected – a rarity for New Hampshire, which historically has thrived on the drama of recasting fallen frontrunners as sympathetic underdogs. Mitt Romney flirted with 40%, a number he can spin as a vote of confidence. Arguably, the most intriguing unknown going into Tuesday’s vote was the strength of Jon Huntsman’s finish (his gamble paid off; his future’s uncertain).
- Whether we’ll be having the same conversation about Romney and his record at Bain Capital nine months from now. The frontrunner’s private-equity past emerged front and center – much to President Obama’s delight – in the final 48 hours of the primary. Let’s see if it continues to hog the spotlight beyond the next two stops in road, South Carolina (Jan. 21) and Florida (Jan. 31).
In case you missed it, a Newt Gingrich-friendly super PAC hit Romney with a scathing infomercial on his years at Bain – accusing him of being a Gordon Gekko type who got it backwards (“I am not a destroyer of companies, I am a liberator of them”).
That, combined with a sound bite taken out of context – Romney saying he liked “being able to fire people” (the candidate was talking about health insurers, not employees, but chopped down to five seconds it isn’t so clear who he wants to deep-six) – sparked a media dog pile and a lot of confusing cross-chatter about job-creation, capitalism and private equity (ironically, most reporters (a) knowing little about corporate finance; (b) working for media outfits owned by giant corporations; (c) trying to stay alive in an industry that’s shedding jobs.
So what did New Hampshire settle in the greater scheme of things? The race now goes south to South Carolina, famous for its sweet tea and sour brand of campaigning. Past GOP primaries have witnessed hardball politics at their most demeaning (just ask John McCain what it was like to have his daughter dragged though the mud there in 2000). 2012 will be no exception.
Figure it this way: the GOP race got decidedly ugly (not to mention juvenile at times) in the 10 days leading up to New Hampshire. Brace yourself another 10 days of southern discomfort.
And that takes us back to Bain Capital and what it says about the Romney candidacy.
I’d like to direct you to two very savvy columnists who, in my estimation, capture the essence of the controversy: The Weekly Standard’s Jonathan Last writes that Romney put Bain front and center as a presidential qualifier, so Republicans shouldn’t have a conniption when the pro’s and con’s of private equity are debated; The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin says that there’s a smart way to go after Romney, and this isn’t it.
Here’s what the controversy – real or faux outrage – tells us about the state of the race:
- The 30-minute commercial put together by the Gingrich super PAC was too long to be a movie trailer – still, it was a pretty convincing preview of coming attractions. If Romney’s the nominee, watch the President’s team to trout out just plain folks who lost their jobs thanks to Bain (get used to a lot of face time with Randy Johnson – not the baseball pitcher, but the fired Bain factory worker who’s been dogging the Romney campaign). Why? Because such pathos not only portrays Romney as heartless, but disconnected from working-class America.
- Speaking of movies, we’ve this show before – in California and Meg Whitman’s 2010 gubernatorial run (Whitman and Romney, btw, being good friends). Democrats and their friendly interests launched a very personal character attack on Whitman, portraying the former eBay as an unlikable icy elitist (“Queen Meg”) rather than a more personable businesswoman, wife, mother and daughter. Whitman’s campaign never grasped the importance of making a personal connection with California’s working class. By the time they tried to undo the damage, it was too late. Romney has the luxury of the spring and summer to get at the problem.
- Speaking of time, if it hasn’t done so already, the Romney campaign should set up a small rapid-response shop within its larger operation post haste, devoted solely to all things Bain (Democrats have been and will continue to train their rapid-response guns on Mitt, now the presumed nominee). The idea is a war room – which makes sense, considering that Gingrich super PAC was the opening salvo in a bigger war. Do the research on worst-case episodes; line-up success stories to speak on the candidate’s behalf; dig into the President’s willingness to take money from the same 1% that does finance for a living (including his new chief of staff, who once ran a Citibank hedge fund). Only persistent nagging will keep a hostile media at buy. And a feistier campaign might make conservatives feel less apprehensive about Romney’s chances against the Obama attack machine.