DAN SCHNUR, director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics:
This article originally appeared in the New York Times.
“It’s the most important night of Mitt Romney’s political life.
Us pundit types tend to get a little bit overwrought when framing presidential campaigns as a series of breathless and seminal do-or-die moments. But Romney’s current predicament and challenge is such that it’s not difficult to see how the outcome of the Republican debate in Jacksonville this evening could have a defining impact on the outcome of next week’s Florida primary and fundamentally shape the road forward for Romney and his opponents.
When he and the other three remaining Republican candidates gather for the 19th debate, Romney will be dealing with poll numbers that show the race as a virtual tossup as a result of Newt Gingrich’s convincing win in South Carolina last weekend. More important, he will be facing his first sustained questioning and criticism since releasing his voluminous tax returns earlier this week. For a candidate who continues to find innovative ways to sound tone-deaf to the voters’ economic challenges — he explained that “banks weren’t bad people” at a Tuesday morning campaign rally — a prolonged discussion of a $20 million income, a 15 percent tax rate, and offshore holdings in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands sounds like a miserable and dangerous way to spend an evening.
Watching the debate most nervously will be the remnants of the once-dominant Republican establishment, who for decades have played the determinative role in selecting their party’s presidential nominees. Most of these experienced players know that Romney still has a solid chance at winning Florida, but they also understand that a shaky debate performance could doom him there. They also realize that Gingrich could win the Republican nomination if Romney falters, and Gingrich’s unpredictability, tendency toward polarization, and weak general election poll numbers frighten them immensely.
But the establishment is not going down without a fight. If they decide Romney can’t carry their banner forward, they could well decide to find someone else who can. Should Romney lose next Tuesday’s primary, the search for an alternative will begin in earnest. The slew of prominent conservatives who decided not to run last year will feel increased pressure to reconsider, and the speculation about a new establishment-backed stop-Newt candidate will reach a sufficient pitch to hobble Romney even further.
The buzz about Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana may now subside as a result of his doctrinally acceptable but uninspiring response to the State of the Union address earlier this week. But look for the speculation on Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and other potential alternatives to increase multifold.
Romney’s challenge was underscored by two separate events that took place this past Tuesday, Barack Obama’s State of the Union address and the release of Romney’s own tax returns. Although the themes of the Obama re-election campaign have been clear for some time now, the populist pitch of his speech this week was a full-throated “people vs. the powerful” confrontation. While Romney was not mentioned by name, his presence – and that of his tax returns – was palpable when the president dove into his message of economic fairness with a call for higher taxes on wealthy Americans.
Assume that as the campaign progresses, Obama’s kind words about Warren Buffett’s secretary are about to be replaced by much harsher language about Romney’s financial holdings.
Romney’s tax returns create a more immediate challenge as well. Gingrich has been aggressively positioning himself on the stump as a champion of the white, working-class voters who increasingly populate Republican voter rolls and has already dubbed his own 15 percent flat tax as “the Romney flat tax.” After an unusually subdued and relatively unsuccessful debate on Monday night and armed with 500 pages of suspicious-looking tax returns, the pressure will be on Gingrich to take the fight directly to Romney as he did in South Carolina.
Romney’s support among independent voters is dropping, most notably among the working class voters Gingrich is courting, who are not likely to be comforted by the candidate’s explanations about his investment and tax opportunities and will be a ready audience for his opponents’ attacks.
Worse for Romney is that by releasing only two years of returns, he guarantees a fresh set of headlines going forward – whether he turns over several more years of information or not. After his needless hesitations allowed the story about his taxes, and therefore his wealth, to define the South Carolina primary, the actual release of the documents days before Florida votes guarantees that the discussion will be on the minds of that state’s Republican voters as they consider their options.
Further down the road, imagine what Obama’s campaign will do in a general election when pushing their boss’s tax plan. Rather than running ads that portray nameless, faceless billionaires, Team Obama will be able to use Romney himself as a convenient and recognizable straw man. Operating in a political landscape colored by the media’s infatuation with the Occupy movements, these assaults will have the ability to disfigure a candidate who’s not prepared to explain his financial assets more comfortably than he has to date.
Nor is this simply a question of whether the rich guy can relate to middle-class voters. There are significant policy implications as well. Lanhee Chen, a Romney adviser and one of Republican Party’s brightest policy minds, has suggested that his candidate might change the tax code to do away with the shelter that allowed Romney to shield much of his investment income.
Other campaign aides quickly threw cold water on the idea, but it’s not hard to imagine Gingrich or Rick Santorum leaping on Romney’s new proposal for raising taxes on investors.
Romney’s problem isn’t that he’s financially successful, but rather that he has had such difficulty discussing his wealth. Moneyed candidates, from Franklin Roosevelt to the elder George Bush, have occasionally struggled to overcome their lack of connection to working-class voters, but plenty of them have been able to overcome that hurdle through either policy proposals or more symbolic and cultural gestures. Romney still hasn’t figured out a way to effectively move the conversation surrounding his biography from out-of-touch aristocrat to committed jobs creator. Thursday’s debate would be a good place to start.
Romney’s fate is not yet determined; far from it. He could use the debate to finally make the case for his economic successes. He could sufficiently disfigure Gingrich to survive Florida. There’s no question that Gingrich’s own lobbyist/not lobbyist professional biography gives Romney ample opportunity to do so.
Romney has a strong campaign organization, lots of money and continues to come across as the safe, stable alternative to Gingrich. Current controversies notwithstanding, his professional biography brings him significant credibility in discussion of economic issues.
The volatility of national polls suggests that Republican primary voters have not rejected Romney outright, but rather that they are unwilling to award him the nomination unless they feel that he has earned it. So far, he clearly hasn’t. In Monday’s debate, Romney took a few tentative steps toward criticizing Gingrich in person, and has stepped up his assault on the campaign trail over the last few days.
The pressure on him tonight is to demonstrate that he’s willing to fight harder and more aggressively while looking his opponent in the eye.
Attacking an opponent is not the only way – and maybe not even the best way – to demonstrate fire in the belly to skeptical and wavering Republican voters. An ineffective or uninspiring debate in Jacksonville certainly won’t end Romney’s campaign. But if his performance tonight leads to a Gingrich victory next Tuesday, the whispers of doubt about his candidacy will quickly grow into shouts and screams about the need for a Romney replacement.”