So now it’s Newt’s turn.
This year’s Republican presidential primary has resembled the Kentucky Derby, the initial leg of the horse racing Triple Crown: one and a quarter miles of break-neck competition, with countless lead changes preceding a final desperate sprint to the finish. Rarely do competitors lead from start to finish. Those who emerge quickly usually fade as the finish line draws near.
Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum were viewed as potential early leaders, and they appeared to emerge well from the gate. Their perceived advantage proved illusory, however, and they quickly faded into the pack. The general feeling is that they have run their race and will not mount a credible challenge.
Rick Perry, the last candidate to the gate, then surged ahead. He was an early favorite and his campaign seemed to be gaining momentum as he began to separate from the pack. However, amidst criticism for softness on immigration issues, he stumbled badly at debates and quickly lost his lead.
Perry’s unexpected drop opened the door for a new candidate to emerge. Herman Cain, former chairman and CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, suddenly materialized atop polls. Cain used his business background to gain favor by preaching economic conservatism and proposing a 9-9-9 tax plan which some viewed as promising while others dismissed as impractical. While some were skeptical of his chances, others viewed him as the future of the Republican party and expected him to remain among the leaders for the balance of the race.
Then the mud began to fly.
There is one significant difference between horse race and presidential campaign. In horse racing, the leader avoids the constant bumps and collisions that inevitably occur when a group of strong, agile animals occupy limited space at high speeds. While trailing horses are subject to mud and dirt raised by the hooves of those before them, the leader can run unimpaired. There is no one to kick mud in its face.
Leading candidates in presidential races, on the other hand, attract mud. They are subject to scrutiny and become vulnerable targets because of their visibility. In presidential races it is the mud hurlers, and not the candidates, who are unimpaired. Thus, the candidate who emerges from the pack must be prepared to face challenges that his opponents may not.
Quite often, those challenges stem from the candidate’s past life. Offenses and indiscretions that may have otherwise remained forever buried suddenly emerge to sully the candidate’s reputation. When those offenses and indiscretions are of a sexual nature, they can destroy the candidate’s chances, as they did Gary Hart’s in 1988.
Soon after Cain’s surprising surge to the front, he was confronted with allegations of past sexual harassment of women and a decade-long extramarital affair. Cain has denied these allegations, essentially turning the issue into a he said/she said, she said, she said and she said verbal battle for the truth. Yesterday, Cain reportedly advised his staff that he was “reassessing” his campaign in light of this development. Unlike Bill Clinton, who overcame similar allegations when he was first elected president in 1992, Cain may abandon his pursuit of the presidency, essentially pulling up lame in the midst of the Presidential Derby.
Cain’s recent drop in the polls has created a new perceived leader in the race: Newt Gingrich, the former GOP Speaker of the House. Despite obvious problems with a potential Gingrich presidency (President Newt? Really?), the new leader has an advantage that Cain lacked. Because of his visibility as Clinton’s principal congressional opponent during his presidency, Gingrich’s “dirty laundry,” including three marriages and a sanction by the House Ethics Committee for tax violations, has long been aired for all to see. Thus, it is unlikely that Gingrich’s campaign will be derailed by new allegations, such as those that plague Cain. The rehashing of “old news” is unlikely to impede Gingrich’s present momentum. What may impact his overall chances will be the assessment of his electability in the general election versus that of Mitt Romney, who has remained near the front of the pack during the entire race, but has been slowed by the perception that he is not far enough to the right to get his party’s full support.
So here we are. Halfway through the race, Gingrich appears to have a slight lead over Romney, with Cain and Perry falling back into the pack. Yet the race is far from over. By the time they reach the finish line the GOP candidates will be muddied, bruised and exhausted. It seems almost unfair that the winner will be then immediately thrust into a two-horse race with President Obama to determine the next leader of the free world.