It’s been a fairly introspective week in Wingnut World. Remarkably little right-wing blood was spilled over the continuing appropriations resolution fight and denouement; no thundering emanated from talk radio or the blogs about the necessity of fighting to the last ditch and shutting down government.
Instead, most of the gabbing has been over the demolition derby of “P5,” last week’s series of presidential candidate events in Orlando, Florida. As I predicted might happen in the last WW, Rick Perry had a terrible 48 hours (actually, a few less than that, since he abruptly left Orlando for Michigan on Saturday morning, letting a surrogate give his speech prior to the state party’s straw poll) in the Sunshine State. By all accounts, he performed poorly in the September 22 Fox/Google candidates’ debate, failing to add much to prior weak defenses of his positions on Social Security and immigration, and stumbling and mumbling his way through a botched attack on Mitt Romney’s record of flip-flops. He didn’t make much of a mark in the September 23 CPAC event, but more importantly, he got trounced in the September 24 straw poll after his campaign made a big deal out of its significance and apparently spent some serious money working the delegates before they assembled.
Since Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann conspicuously gave the straw poll a pass well in advance, and it wasn’t the kind of open event Ron Paul could pack with his supporters, Perry was expected to romp. But instead, the big winner was Herman Cain, who made a favorable impression with a smooth and upbeat performance in the candidate debate, and fiery versions of his well-worn stock speech both at CPAC and just prior to the straw poll.
Cain, you may remember, was written off by most observers after an initial splash among Tea Party supporters, mainly because he was not spending enough time in Iowa or New Hampshire to convince even his own staff that he was serious about competing. But in the intimate context of P5, where money and organization mattered less than the immediate impression made by the candidate, Cain’s charisma was enough, particularly among Floridians annoyed at Rick Perry for sleepwalking through the debate, insulting them as “heartless” for their misgivings about his stance on immigration, and then getting out of town as quickly as he could.
There’s only been one big national poll taken since last week’s events, by CNN, and it didn’t show much in the way of movement among the candidates, though both Cain and the perennial debate star Newt Gingrich did better, and Michele Bachmann continued her ignominious slide in national popularity. Measurements of Republican elite opinion, however, indicated a distinct shift from Perry to Mitt Romney, who didn’t do that much better than his rival in Florida, but had lower expectations to meet and didn’t make major mistakes.
But perhaps the most significant symptom of renewed Republican unhappiness with the party’s presidential field has been the intense pressure on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to make a late entry into the race, despite his constant disclaimers that he’s not interested and not ready for the presidency. In a Q&A session after a well-received speech at the Ronald Reagan presidential library last night, Christie seemed to open the door to something like a draft to run. You can expect a period of intense speculation over Christie’s plans to ensue, along with a serious effort by his rivals to expose restless conservative voters to his record of heretical positions on immigration, guns, “Shariah Law,” and other topics.
But time is running short for Christie to get into the race, if that’s what he decides to do. As the actual candidates camped out in Florida last week, a commission set up by the legislature to choose a 2012 primary date by the national party’s October 1 deadline was beginning to meet. One of the pols that appointed the commission, House Speaker Dean Cannon, is now publicly predicting they will move the primary to January 31, which would all but destroy the RNC’s plans to prevent excessive “front-loading” of the calendar and likely set off a chain reaction among the “early states” that would push Iowa at least to early January and perhaps even back into 2011. If the initial blitz of events that so often determines the nomination is to begin in just over three months, it’s getting a little late for candidates to test the wind and ask to be begged to run.