By Alex Castellanos
As the strangest GOP primary in memory sails farther into unchartered waters, four candidates had much to appreciate this Thanksgiving. Others, after the CNN-Heritage debate, hope Christmas will be kinder.
Mitt Romney: The good news for Romney is that he again performed to near perfection. The bad news, unfortunately, is the same. Romney has unmatched experience and is campaigning at the peak of his powers, yet still can't separate himself from the pack and earn the love of his party's base. The post-debate narrative is not about Mitt. It is about Romney alternatives: Did Huntsman make himself competitive in New Hampshire with a performance equal, if not superior, to Romney's? Did Gingrich soar too close to the sun only to once again melt his wings? And where has Michele Bachmann been hiding this serious and presidential version of Michele Bachmann?
Romney keeps playing it safe, with a game that would make Dean Smith proud. The governor is retreating to the "four-corners," the Carolina coach's famous, "take-time-off-the-clock" offense. Unlike Romney, however, Dean Smith only employed delaying tactics when he had a lead. If the GOP's anti-establishment or conservative wings coalesce around another candidate, Romney could suddenly find himself lagging a surging opponent for whom he has shortened the game.
And what is Romney's plan to build national momentum beyond the Granite State, where a victory is already built into his stock price? If Romney loses New Hampshire, he makes news. Winning there may have no more shock value than announcing it's cold in January in Concord. Romney is stuck under 30% on polls nearly everywhere outside New Hampshire. It is not certain that a New Hampshire win, if viewed as a regional victory, is now enough to take Romney to a higher plane.
Newt Gingrich: I've been critical of the former Speaker but in the CNN foreign policy debate, he was a profile in courage. Republicans were privileged to see Gingrich's "Nixon goes to China" moment: Only Gingrich, a known and trusted denizen of the right, could take the GOP where he did. He said what every Republican believes but many can't admit: We are not a people or a party who are going to dispose of families who've gone to church, worked hard, payed taxes, educated their children along sides ours, and contributed to our economy for 25 years, while the federal government failed to shut our back door. No one else on the stage could get away with saying that, perhaps, not even Gingrich. This display of strength will hurt Gingrich with the base, though it also elevates him to a status above political self-interest, a plateau currently beyond Romney. If Mitt Romney can survive RomneyCare, perhaps Gingrich can survive caring? It would speak well of the GOP if he did.
Can Newt Gingrich possibly win this nomination? Today, no. However, if Romney's balloon-thin campaign suffers the slightest prick, no one else can win it, either. Then it's anybody's game, including Gingrich's. A Palin endorsement could take Gingrich over the hump on immigration and help him congeal the right. It would compel Romney to land the Huckabee endorsement to counter. Swallow hard, Romneyites: Can you say, "Vice-President Huckabee?"
Michele Bachmann: If a Martian dropped to earth for his virginal visit and saw the recent GOP debate, he would have wondered, "What is Ron Paul doing so far from his home planet?" He also would have asked, "Why isn't Michelle Bachmann among the contenders?" If this had been the first day of her campaign, Bachmann's impressive performance would have sparked a boomlet. Bachmann's problem, however, is that the Martians have been around awhile. They've seen Bachmann constrict her appeal through the summer, in a needless effort to compete with Perry on the right. Little did she know Perry would run such an effective campaign against himself. If Bachmann had spent the summer after her Des Moines Straw Poll victory running against Obama, not Perry, and focusing on economics, not social issues, she would find herself stronger. More importantly, narrowing her focus to Iowa was a mistake of apocalyptic proportion: Bachmann sent her party a message that she was a candidate without national appeal, the same error inflicted upon Tim Pawlenty by Tim Pawlenty. Lesson from Herman Cain: Campaigns today take place on national cable, talk radio and that new fangled Internet thingy, not in Iowa and New Hampshire. It's not too late for Bachmann to start playing in the national arena, but only seconds remain on the clock. The new Bachmann message for the next debate? Republican Economic Feminism: "There may be eight other candidates running for President on this stage, but there is only one mom. We are not going to be the first generation of American women to leave our children less of an America than we were given. Gentlemen, we've seen what you can do. Please, step aside. Here's how we are going to break down business as usual in Washington and get this economy back to work." Is that enough to drive Bachmann to the finish line? Probably not, but it might get her back in the game.
Jon Huntsman: No one ever out-smarts Newt Gingrich, but jaws dropped in the Las Vegas-CNN debate when Romney bested the former Speaker in their exchange on health care mandates. At that moment, Romney won Gingrich's respect: Newt now cedes that Romney will be one of the last two standing. This debate, however, it was Huntsman who took the last word in the intellectual head-butting contest with Romney, as they sparred about Afghanistan. Huntsman's back and forth with Romney was his best moment of the campaign. His impressive performance is complemented with either masterful or fortuitous timing: Huntsman's Super-Pac has started to place multi-million dollar buys in the Boston media market, wall-papering New Hampshire with TV ads. Surely more spending will follow. Huntsman will need to spend every dime because New Hampshire must give him at least the appearance of a win.
For some reason, Huntsman has made Romney his first playoff game. Loser leave town, it's Romney vs. Huntsman in New Hampshire. Huntsman is not fighting to be the leading anti-Romney conservative, he's trying to fill exactly the same space as Mitt Romney. If Gingrich, Bachmann or even Cain roar out of Iowa, the GOP establishment will take to the barricades in New Hampshire, hair on fire. Barring a Romney Cornhusker win which ends this contest early, New Hampshire conservatives will be rallying around the Iowa winner, while a panicky Republican establishment pins a badge on either Romney or Huntsman and sends him out at high noon for the gunfight. Expectations may not require Huntsman to win New Hampshire but, perceptually, he must edge Mitt Romney on January 10th with sufficient momentum to carry Florida to end off the month. That means Huntsman has more urgent need to go negative against Romney than any other candidate -- even though he hasn't yet run enough positive TV to attract voters he may cleave from his Republican twin. To borrow an old joke, Jon Huntsman doesn't have to outrun the bear, just Mitt Romney. Bottom line: Expect more positive and negative ads soon. Now or never, this is Huntsman's moment to unleash.
Herman Cain: The Godfather's Pizza CEO now falls among those who have less to be thankful for, entering December. Truth is usually a simple thing. Too many explanations can raise as much doubt as none at all. When publicly charged with mistreatment of women, Cain over-explained his innocence and, in the end, resolved nothing. Compound that with a debate on foreign policy that took even his one-dimensional 9-9-9 plan out of his rhetorical arsenal and Cain is left with an empty holster. Gabby Hayes was the most famous cowboy movie sidekick of all time, parodied in Blazing Saddles for saying, "consarn it," "yer dern tootin", "young whippersnapper" and the ever useful "dadgumit!" We almost expect Herman Cain to conclude everything he says next debate the same way.
Rick Perry: In every debate, poor Rick Perry is the man who keeps pushing on the door marked "pull." This time, it wasn't what he forgot that got him in trouble. It was what he remembered. Explaining his shoot-from-the-hip Pakistan policy, he reduced our relationship with a country bristling with 100 nuclear weapons to a macho ultimatum. He elevated his campaign from hapless to a threat to global security.
Note to Team Perry: There is no law requiring candidates to debate. You are actually allowed to serve your own interests. Perry's campaign team, however, is the same unit that tied Newt Gingrich's shoelaces together as he stumbled out of the starting gate. Now, they have similarly graced Perry, allowing him not only to enter the race unready and unskilled, but also to debate unprepared. This Gingrich-Perry team enjoys a rare distinction: The same campaign professionals have killed their own candidates twice in one election. Even Rick Perry deserves better. Does that mean Perry is out of it? No. If Mitt Romney gets hit by a bus, crushed by an asteroid or merely slips on a patch of ice in Manchester, any Republican, even Perry, can still seize this nomination. It makes no difference if others take a step forward or Mitt Romney takes a step back.
And that's the most remarkable development, or non-development, of this election. Month after month, dollar after dollar, debate after debate, we've seen we've Mitt Romney at his best, yet failing to pull away from the field. Romney is still leaving the door open to those who have fallen to the "B" tier. He is giving all his opponents the opportunity to get back into this contest. If Romney doesn't energize his campaign soon, somebody might actually try to win this race besides him.
That might not be hard to do. His competitors are about 10 minutes away from figuring out it is in all their interest to go negative on Romney and drag him down to their level. If they test Romney and fail, nothing is lost. In fact, they'll strengthen Romney and probably make him President. But if any candidate effectively cuts Romney, others will see blood in the water. The sharks will circle. They'll start thinking, "Hey, anybody could win this race." They'll squint, "I could win this race!"
Somewhere Barack Obama is smiling. If they bring Mitt Romney down, it's jump ball for the GOP.
Alex Castellanos is a Republican strategist and frequent guest on our political roundtable.