Back to previous page


The 5 key questions of the Republican presidential race

By and ,

The Iowa caucuses answered some questions — no, Michele Bachmann isn’t going to be president — but raised lots and lots of others.

As the race moves to New Hampshire (Jan. 10) and then South Carolina (Jan. 21), here’s a look at five key questions — the answers to which will tell us a lot about the shape of the race going forward.

1. Does Newt Gingrich go on a kamikaze mission?

In the wake of his disappointing fourth-place finish in Iowa, the former House speaker offered an ominous warning to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. “This is not a conservative Republican,” Gingrich told NBC’s Chuck Todd on Wednesday morning. “He is not going to win the nomination.”

The fact that Gingrich is out for vengeance after a Romney-affiliated super PAC calling itself Restore Our Future destroyed his chances in Iowa is beyond debate. Whether or not Gingrich can make good on his threats against Romney remains to be seen.

What Gingrich needs is money. While he raised more than $9 million in the final three months of 2011, he was drastically outspent on television in Iowa — suggesting that he may not have enough cash on hand to make a real dent in Romney’s support. A Gingrich-allied super PAC could ride to the rescue, but if they haven’t yet, why would they now, when he is clearly no longer a top-tier candidate?

One x-factor working in Gingrich’s favor: He has the endorsement of the New Hampshire Union-Leader, which has shown a willingness to aggressively attack its political enemies — including Romney — in the past. Gingrich plus the Union Leader could create enough of a megaphone effect to worry Romney.

2. Can Rick Santorum stand the heat?

The former Pennsylvania senator’s Iowa surge came so close to caucus night that there was next-to-no time for a serious examination of his policy positions or his past record in office. With his ascension into that top tier, that close look will come now — aided, natch, by the Romney opposition research team. And Santorum has a very long record in public life to sift through (he spent four years in the U.S. House before being elected to the Senate in 1994).

How Santorum handles the deep dig and how damaging the negative information unearthed winds up being to his image with Republican voters remains to be seen. (There will be negative stuff found. As Willie Stark says in “All the King’s Men”: “There’s always something.”)

3. How much more money does Restore Our Future have?

The dominant force in the Iowa caucuses — at least in the television ad wars — wasn’t any candidate. It was Restore Our Future, Romney’s super PAC, which spent millions of dollars on a brutally efficient destruction of Gingrich.

With the race likely to take a very nasty turn as it heads toward South Carolina, the question is how much more does ROF have left in its bank account?

The group hasn’t had to file a financial report with the Federal Election Commission since mid-June; at that point it had $12 million on hand. It’s hard to imagine that there wasn’t plenty more cash available after that initial seed money, but we simply have no way of knowing right now.

If ROF is well-funded heading into South Carolina and Florida, it could be a major advantage for Romney. While both Santorum and Gingrich have super PACs supporting them, neither organization has demonstrated near the fundraising heft of ROF.

Assuming Restore Our Future keeps spending, Romney will easily dwarf his potential rivals on television in each of the next three early primary states — a massive helper in his bid to be the Republican nominee.

4. Does Rick Perry stay viable?

The surprise announcement — tweet, really — from the Texas governor that, after re-assessing his campaign, he would continue on in the race stunned the political world on Wednesday.

The question for Perry is what kind of campaign can he reasonably expect to run? After his tearful not-quite-concession speech on Tuesday night, it’s hard to imagine anyone but the most die-hard Perry fans giving him any money now.

But, Perry does have an obvious geographic connection to South Carolina — it’s in the South, he’s from the South; we told you it was obvious — and his super PAC, Make Us Great Again, has been spending heavily in the Palmetto State.

If Perry stays in the race through South Carolina and remains credible — a big if — he would cause major problems for Santorum as the Pennsylvania Republican tries to unite social conservative and evangelical voters behind his bid. (More on that below.)

Perry in the race through South Carolina could create a dynamic similar to the one that allowed Arizona Sen. John McCain to win the Palmetto State primary in 2008. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee was the favorite son of social conservatives, but former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson retained a bloc of support in that community too. Thompson won just enough of the vote — 16 percent — to split social conservatives and hand McCain a win. He dropped out days later and endorsed McCain. (Romney is the McCain figure in that comparison, by the way.)

5. Do conservatives unite?

The defining factor of the 2008 Republican presidential race was a splintered conservative vote that handed the nomination to a candidate that the base didn’t love.

Sound familiar?

As Politico’s Jonathan Martin reports, a group of conservatives are set to meet next weekend in Texas to try to settle on a “consensus” candidate. That, of course, is easier said than done.

The obvious choice at this point is Santorum but, as the race to date has shown, the landscape could well shift in a week or 10 days time. Our guess is that there are simply too many competing interests within the movement conservative community for it to quickly settle on a a consensus pick.

If it doesn’t, expect there to be lots of Monday morning quarterbacking about whether movement conservatives should have gotten behind Perry sooner and whether they could have helped save him from, well, himself.

RGA raised $22 million in second half of 2011: The Republican Governors Association continued to set a torrid fundraising pace in the second half of 2011, matching its $22 million haul from the first half.

The $44.1 million the RGA raised in 2011 is more than twice what the Democratic Governors Association raised. The DGA announced earlier this week that it raised more than $20 million in 2011, including $9 million in the second half of the year.

The RGA also has $26.6 million cash on hand, compared to $12.2 million for the DGA.

The RGA routinely outraises and outspends the DGA by about a two-to-one margin — including in this year’s governor’s races — but both committees have upped their fundraising in recent years.

A Perdue primary challenge?: It sounds a lot like North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue (D) is about to get a primary challenge.

State Rep. Bill Faison (D), who publicly urged Perdue not to seek reelection in November and has announced he won’t seek reelection himself, has nonetheless self-funded $500,000 for a yet-to-be-determined campaign.

He also held a press conference Wednesday that appeared to lay out a platform for running for governor, according to local reports.

Faison is thought to be interested in running for governor, though he offered a pretty vague response when asked about it.

While Perdue has problems in the general election, it’s not clear that those problems translate to her base. But a primary would be a headache nonetheless.

Fixbits:

The Democratic National Committee targets Romney’s and McCain’s newfound friendship in a web video.

Huntsman’s new New Hampshire ad draws a picture of a downtrodden United States, saying Americans are “getting screwed.”

Perry didn’t have to go back to Texas to reassess his campaign after all; he decided to stay in the race during a morning jog in West Des Moines.

Santorum’s wife, Karen, had this to say when he talked to her about running for president: “Do it right. Be serious about it,” Rick Santorum recalled. “If you decide to do this, don’t embarrass me.”

The pro-Gingrich super PAC signals it will join Gingrich in ravaging Romney.

The lesser of the two super PACs backing Santorum looks like it will fold.

Must-reads:

Romney leaves Iowa with same problems he had in 2008” — Philip Rucker, Washington Post

After Iowa caucuses, GOP elites seek ‘consensus’ candidate” — Jonathan Martin, Politico

Romney and McCain bury the past” — Dan Balz, Washington Post

Can Jon Huntsman become the Rick Santorum of New Hampshire?” — Sandhya Somashekhar, Washington Post

Paths of surging Santorum, fading Gingrich again cross” — Paul Kane, Washington Post

A Bit of a Balancing Act for Republicans Critical of Paul” — Richard A. Oppel Jr.

© The Washington Post Company