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Two of America’s most perceptive political reporters join forces for an unprecedented behind-the-scenes look at the race for the White House in POLITICO’s Playbook 2012, a series of four instant digital books on the 2012 presidential election. The second edition, Inside the Circus, pulls back the curtain on the pursuit of the Republican nomination, as operatives jockey for position and strategists vie to fashion a message that can win over all factions of the fractious GOP. Over the course of a long winter and into the spring, the contest for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination gathered steam and bubbled over with drama. At times it seemed more like a soap opera or reality show than a political campaign. Inside the Circus, the latest real-time digital dispatch from acclaimed political correspondent Mike Allen and award-winning journalist and author Evan Thomas, chronicles each turn in this endlessly surprising race with reporting straight from the campaign war rooms of Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and the other GOP contenders.
What was the thinking inside the Romney brain trust as what was once expected to be an easy ride to the nomination turned into what some have called a “long slog”? How did Newt Gingrich throw the preternaturally poised Romney off his game in South Carolina—and who convinced the former Massachusetts governor it was time to start punching back? Why were the other campaigns caught flat-footed by the rise of Rick Santorum and what does his unlikely ascent mean for the prospect of a brokered convention? From the Iowa caucuses to Super Tuesday and beyond, Allen and Thomas answer all the questions the headlines, polls, and delegate counts can’t address. The stakes are high, the plotlines are still unfolding, and Inside the Circus is your fly-on-the-wall guide to the most fascinating Republican presidential race in recent memory.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Inside the Circus--Romney, Santorum and the GOP Race: Playbook 2012 (POLITICO Inside Election 2012)
They didn’t see him coming—at least not in time.
In the months before the Iowa caucuses, the Mitt Romney campaign, like most of the Republican political establishment, as well as the press corps and most of America, had been ignoring Rick Santorum. Usually running well down in the polls—behind Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and the libertarian Ron Paul—Santorum had doggedly driven around Iowa for months in a pickup truck. Dressed in a sweater vest, visiting all ninety-nine counties, he was preaching a gospel of social conservatism and small-government populism, attacking “Obamacare” as a socialist plot to take over the lives of ordinary, small-town Americans.
Only five days before the Iowa caucuses, on Thursday, December 29, did the Romney campaign begin to focus on Santorum. “Okay, let’s take a look at the Santorum book,” said one of the top campaign officials, meaning the book of opposition research on the former Pennsylvania senator. One of the aides answered, “There’s no Santorum book.”
Stunned, the top official who had in a matter-of-fact fashion asked for “the Santorum book” stared at the aide a moment and then said, “Are you—I mean—are you kidding me?” recalled a Romney adviser.
But it was too late.
* * *
The most popular role in Campaign 2012 has been a negative one: the Un-Romney. Virtually every Republican hopeful had his or her moment. Handsome and down-home, Rick Perry had once seemed a natural champion for the Tea Party pitchfork populism that prevailed in American politics on the eve of the primaries. But some knew better: in September, a close ally of Perry’s had remarked to a friend that if Perry were smart, and if they had a couple of months to prepare, then they’d have a shot. The man added, “But he ain’t, and we don’t.”
A bad back doomed any chance Perry stood to break through. It became an open secret that he was using painkillers in sufficient dosages to keep him standing through the two-hour debates. The manager of a rival campaign was at a urinal in an empty bathroom in Hanover, New Hampshire, before the Bloomberg News debate on October 11, when he heard someone come through the door loudly singing “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” Wondering who was making all the noise, the campaign manager turned his head and saw, to his surprise, the governor of Texas. Perry came down the row of about twenty urinals and stood companionably close by. Nonplussed, the campaign manager made a hasty exit; as the bathroom door closed, he could hear Perry still merrily singing away: “I-I-I’ve been working on the ra-a-i-i-l-road, all-l-l the live-long day …”
Asked about the episode, a top campaign official said, “He whistles. I wouldn’t read anything into it.”
Perry was going nowhere, but he still had the capacity to hurt Mitt Romney. And in fact, the story of Campaign 2012 thus far is Romney’s perpetual vulnerability as a front-runner—a vulnerability so profound that even a novice national figure like Rick Perry could spook him.
* * *
On December 10, at a debate in Des Moines, Perry threw a stray punch. Repeating a charge from earlier debates, the Texas governor accused the former Massachusetts governor of promoting a key element of President Obama’s health-care plan.
Romney cut in, “You know what, you’ve raised that before, Rick, and you’re simply wrong.” Perry insisted: “It was true then …” Voices rising, each man talked across the other. Visibly peeved, Romney stuck his hand out and challenged Perry: “Ten thousand bucks? Ten-thousand-dollar bet?” Perry, looking genuinely surprised, responded, “I’m not in the betting business.”
The moment passed. But the image of Romney as a clueless rich man would linger.
* * *
Romney had tried to be a regular guy. He just wasn’t very good at it.
He could not seal the deal. Stuck at around 20 or 25 percent in polls of likely Republican voters in the primaries, Romney kept running behind candidates who had less experience and credibility. Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry all made runs before fizzling, either because they lacked the fire (Pawlenty) or because they were somehow flawed or implausible. The most unlikely challenger, in retrospect, was Herman Cain. “The Hermanator” was a crowd-pleaser, but he was also a walking time bomb of scandal. Over breakfast with us in late February, a high-level Washington lobbyist just shook his head over Cain’s giddy run in October and November. Hundreds of people, he said, had known about the sexual harassment allegations against Cain at the National Restaurant Association; how had the press been so slow to catch on? Was it because they were lazy? Or maybe just enjoying the Herman Cain show too much to check him out?
* * *
Newt Gingrich’s turn had begun in mid-November, after he had played the most convincing Un-Romney role in several debates. The former Speaker was in his brainy professor mode when he talked with us on November 18. He explained, at some length, how the Syrians had lost the 1973 war because their tanks had run out of gasoline. Instead of just battling the tanks, the Israelis had cleverly concentrated on destroying the trucks bringing them fuel. “If I can shoot the truck that’s bringing the gasoline to twenty tanks, I just took out twenty tanks, because they run out of gasoline!” Gingrich exclaimed with professorial glee (he has often lectured at war colleges). It was all very interesting and, in a way, impressive but a little hard to connect to winning the Republican nomination in 2012.
Nonetheless, Gingrich was ebullient. He was riding a second wind. The summer and early fall had been “the hardest two months of my life,” Gingrich recalled. In June, most of his staff had quit after he had gone on a two-week vacation to the Greek islands at the insistence of his wife, Callista. Now for advice he relied mostly on Callista, whom he compared to Nancy Reagan. He had little money and virtually no staff or ground operation. Even so, he was, surprisingly, forging ahead of Romney in many national polls. During the November 18 interview, we asked Gingrich what he planned to do to stay on top. “Well, jeez, probably my wife and my two daughters and my two grandchildren are reminding me every day to smile,” Gingrich answered. “I mean, the key is to relax and say, ‘Isn’t this terrific? I actually have all these people paying attention because I could potentially be president,’ and then you just relax because these guys [in the press] are all doing their job.” Gingrich enjoyed playing a kind of game with reporters. He would publicly denounce them as low-life scourges during debates, then show up at the bar later that night to have a few drinks with them. For all his complaints, Gingrich was the most savvy about the press of any of the candidates. On primary day in Florida, he stopped at a polling station and seemed intent on not talking to reporters amid the pandemonium. ABC’s Jonathan Karl followed Gingrich to his bus and asked, “If Romney wins today, is it over? How much longer does it go on?” Gingrich couldn’t resist. “Six months,” he said nonchalantly. Then Karl turned and realized he had been separated from his camera. “I am so pissed off, because it’s such a classic moment and I didn’t have it on camera,” Karl recalled. “But the bus doesn’t leave. He’s waiting on the bus and there’s a supporter out in a wheelchair, and it’s almost like an encore: he comes back out to see the supporter. As he’s leaving to get back on the bus, I ask him the exact same question again. And he looks at me and smiles and says, ‘You just asked me that question. Oh, I get it. You didn’t have your camera, did you? It wasn’t on camera, was it?’ And then I just asked the question again and he played right along. Awesome.”
At the November interview, Gingrich had said he planned to be Ronald Reagan and grin for the camera and refer any hard questions to his press secretary, whose job it was to say, “Hell no, I’m not telling you.” Gingrich smiled contentedly at his own foxiness. “The one virtue of being sixty-eight,” he told us, “is that I’ve actually done all this stuff.”
Staying above it all turned out to be not quite so simple. In Iowa, the Romneyites buried Gingrich in negative ads. A perfect example of one, paid for by the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future, was just brutal. It stated that while the economy was collapsing from the bursting of the home mortgage bubble, Gingrich, the Washington influence peddler, had made $1.6 million in fees from a government-backed mortgage lender (“Freddie Mac paid Newt $30,000 an hour …”). The ad showed a photograph of Gingrich, grinning, sitting side by side with the former Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and accused him of sponsoring a bill with her to make contributions to the UN (another right-wing punching bag) to support China’s “notorious one-birth policy.” The attack ad went on: “And Newt is the only Speaker in history to be reprimanded. He was fined $300,000 for ethics violations by a Republican Congress. As conservative National Review says, ‘His weakness for half-baked (and not especially conservative) ideas made him a poor Speaker of the House … He appears unable to transform, or even govern, himself.’ ” The ad began by asking why Barack Obama was smiling about Gingrich’s candidacy and concluded: “Newt Gingrich: Too Much Baggage.”
Increasingly peevish and glum on the campaign stump, Gingrich lost badly in Iowa, finishing a distant fourth to Romney and Rick Santorum on January 3.
Mike Allen was the Chief White House correspondent for Politico and the author of the popular daily political tip sheet,Politico Playbook. Previously, he served as White House Correspondent for Time and spent six years at the Washington Post, where he covered President George W. Bush's first term, Capitol Hill, campaign finance, and the Bush, Gore, and Bradley campaigns of 2000.
Evan Thomas is the author of nine books: The Wise Men (with Walter Isaacson), The Man to See, The Very Best Men, Robert Kennedy, John Paul Jones, Sea of Thunder, The War Lovers,Ike’s Bluff, and Being Nixon. John Paul Jones and Sea of Thunder were New York Times bestsellers. Thomas was a writer, correspondent, and editor for thirty-three years at Time and Newsweek, including ten years (1986–96) as Washington bureau chief at Newsweek, where, at the time of his retirement in 2010, he was editor at large. He wrote more than one hundred cover stories and in 1999 won a National Magazine Award. He wrote Newsweek’s fifty-thousand-word election specials in 1996, 2000, 2004 (winner of a National Magazine Award), and 2008. He has appeared on many TV and radio talk shows, including Meet the Press and The Colbert Report, and has been a guest on PBS’s Charlie Rose more than forty times. The author of dozens of book reviews for The New York Times and The Washington Post, Thomas has taught writing and journalism at Harvard and Princeton, where, from 2007 to 2014, he was Ferris Professor of Journalism.