Heading for the Hawkeye State

Five days and counting. The Iowa caucus will finally get the voters, or at least some of them, a chance to weigh in on the GOP presidential nomination. Of course, the Iowa caucuses will only test the views of those brave souls willing to come out on a cold January night and sit through an hour-long caucus. And Iowa, which is 91 percent white, largely rural, and large numbers of motivated evangelicals, is hardly a microcosm of the country. But, better the decision rest with some voters than with only pundits.

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney appears to have the wind at his back. His opponents are scrambling to become the un-Romney and, consequently, have been taking shots at each other rather than at Romney. Additionally, Romney threw plenty of negative ads against Newt Gingrich, the only opponent who could appeal to both the conservative base and establishment Republicans. Just as the non-stop negative ads that Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt threw at each other in 2004 paved the way for a surprise victory by John Kerry in the Hawkeye State, Romney is benefiting from being above the fray.

I confess I do not understand why the other candidates have not laid a glove on Romney. Even if they only peel away a couple of percentage points, in a multi-candidate caucus, a couple of percentage points can be the difference between second and third and between third and fourth. And, with all those evangelical voters, some of whom may be leaning towards Romney as the most electable candidate, Romney has plenty of vulnerabilities.

I have written previously about the fact that Romney’s health care reform in Massachusetts explicitly provided for taxpayer-funded abortions and, by statute, allows Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts to appoint one of the members of the state’s health care advisory board. At a town hall meeting last week in New Hampshire, I asked former Speaker Newt Gingrich if either of those provisions would be a “deal breaker” for him in any health care reform, noting that for the USCCB, taxpayer-funded abortions was a deal-breaker. Gingrich said something he rarely says in response to a question from the press, “I didn’t know that.” He said he was especially surprised about the provision giving Planned Parenthood a seat on the advisory board. Romney would seem to be especially vulnerable on the issue because his health care reform came after his change of views on abortion. So far, Gingrich and the others have not called out the former governor on the issue.

Another incident from Romney’s tenure in Massachusetts that would trouble evangelical and conservative Catholic voters is the case of Haleigh Poutre, an eleven year old girl who was beaten so badly by her adoptive mother and stepfather that she was in a vegetative coma in late 2005. Romney’s Department of Social Services (DSS) was faulted for failing to act on fifteen reported incidents of abuse before the beating that placed the little girl into a coma. Haleigh’s adoptive mother committed suicide and the state took custody of the child. Romney’s DSS then asked the court for permission to remove Haleigh from life support. The Massachusetts Catholic Conference urged that Haleigh be kept on a feeding tube but the state supreme court ruled the DSS could remove Haleigh from all life support. But, then a funny thing happened. The day after the supreme court decision, Haleigh’s doctors noticed an improvement in her condition. She began to follow simple instructions. Her improvement continued and, in 2008, Gov. Deval Patrick’s renamed Department for Children and Families said it was looking for a new adoptive home for the girl. We can all be grateful that this little girl who was abused by her adoptive parents and then by the DSS is now alive.

Haleigh Poutre’s case arose only months after the nation was riveted by a different, but similar, case in Florida regarding Terri Schiavo. (I will not get into the issues of end-of-life care here except to say that I was very glad my Mom spent her last months in a Catholic facility with a Catholic ethics board to guide the heart-wrenching decisions that needed to be made.) Perhaps, Romney thought the issue was too toxic to embrace. But, for evangelicals, the Schiavo case mattered a great deal and among the kind of moderate swing voters Romney is counting on to win, his lack of commentary of the DSS’s failure to act appropriately after fifteen – FIFTEEN – cases of child abuse, leads one to question his managerial credentials.

Of course, there is one main reason that Speaker Gingrich has not gone after Romney, indeed, why he has criticized negative campaign ads and vowed not to run any of his own: He doesn’t have the money to run many ads, negative or positive. Gingrich’s decision to “go positive” may have appeared like a case of necessity being the mother of invention, but instead it has proven to be a case of necessity being the mother of implosion. As much as we all decry negative ads every two or four years, they work. Everyone knows they work. And, they must be combated. Unfortunately for Gingrich, his rise in the polls at the end of November and beginning of December came too late for him to raise much money and too early to avoid the assault of negative ads. He is not out of the race by a long shot, but he needs to make sure that as the other candidates fade, he becomes the second choice of their supporters, not Romney.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum is experiencing a boomlet that may be better timed but is unlikely to have legs. First of all, Santorum tries to present himself as the kind of candidate who can win a swing state, noting that he won in Pennsylvania twice. He fails to note that in his third try for office, he lost by a wider margin, 18 percent, than any other incumbent senator. Secondly, there is something a bit off about Santorum. All the GOP candidates oppose gay marriage, but he was the one who had to bring the prospect of man-on-dog sex into his explanation. Huh? And, in an attempt to demonstrate his pro-life credentials, he often speaks movingly about a child he and his wife had who was still-born. They named him Gabriel. In the face of such a tragedy, I think families should be cut a wide, wide swath of sympathy for however they react, but Santorum has made the issue a public one by writing a book about the event and discussing the fact that he and his wife took the dead baby’s body and slept with it one night before burying the child. I can discern in that act two incredibly loving parents trying to affirm their love for their child, but I suspect most voters just get wigged out by it. Not so much that the Santorums chose to sleep with their dead child as that he chooses to speak about it on the stump, right after calling for lower taxes.

Cong. Ron Paul has little to no chance at securing the GOP nomination, but the longer he stays in the race, the longer he will be attacked by other candidates and, just so, the more likely he is to get angry and mount a third party run. From my lips to God’s ears. And, I suspect Gov. Rick Perry might exceed expectations: Throughout, he has had money to spend, on ads and organization, and as undecided make up their minds, he might do a bit better than anticipated.

This weekend, of course, instead of extensive news coverage of the upcoming vote, most of us will be watching college football’s bowl games. And, unless you are Iowa watching the ads and assessing the turnout at campaign events, it is hard to know what will happen next Tuesday. But, it is always hard to know what will happen in the Iowa caucuses where momentum in the polls requires organization on the ground to be turned into a victory. There may yet be more twists and bumps in this roller coaster ride.

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