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What If Newt Wins S.C.?

Perry's out, Gingrich is surging and Romney is stumbling.

If you had to construct a scenario in which Newt Gingrich could rise from the political ashes—for the second time—and surge to victory in South Carolina, it would be hard to beat the past few days.

The front runner stumbles, you whack him for hiding his tax returns, you have a strong debate performance, and one of your rivals for the evangelical vote, Rick Perry, drops out at the last minute and endorses you.

Is that enough to push Newt over the top - and if he does win, or comes close, would that transform the Republican presidential race? Perhaps even ABC's interview with his ex wife Marianne will end up being a plus, if it seems to conservative voters that the media are piling on by recycling an episode of infidelity for which Gingrich has already publicly atoned.

As Perry put it Thursday in bowing out, Newt is not perfect, but who among us is? There is forgiveness for those who seek God.

What Gingrich has craved all along is a one on one matchup with Mitt Romney, the man he casts as a Massachusetts moderate, and he's pretty close to getting it. The wild card remains Rick Santorum, whose campaign has stalled since Iowa (which, it turns out, he actually won, though the caucus gods are refusing to make it official).

In a PPP poll, Gingrich is now leading Romney 34 to 28 percent, and he’s ahead 33-31 in a Rasmussen survey. Politico gives Romney the edge, 37 to 30 percent, while NBC has Romney leading 34-24—but Newt’s numbers bump up on Tuesday, the day after the Fox News debate in Myrtle Beach.

Regardless of the margin, Newt is clearly on the move. His political experience showed in the way he handled Romney’s belated admission of paying an effective 15 percent income tax rate. Rather than berate Mitt for the sin of being rich, he said he wanted a flatter tax so everyone could pay the “Romney rate.”

Romney, meanwhile, is having a klutzy week, kissing off as “not very much” what turned out to be $374,000 in speaking fees. Gingrich hasn’t unloaded on that, perhaps because he was paid $60,000 for a speech in which he fulsomely praised private equity firms (of the Bain variety).

The press, of course, is quietly rooting for a Newt upset on Saturday, even though it would show that journalists stupidly pronounced last rites twice—once when his campaign imploded last spring, and again when Romney buried him with a negative ad barrage in Iowa.

A Gingrich win in South Carolina would be nothing short of remarkable, given the state’s role in coronating establishment figures (including, most recently, John McCain and George W. Bush). And Romney, with the backing of Gov. Nikki Haley, is most definitely the establishment candidate in this race.

That’s why Gingrich was openly pleading with the state’s voters this week to keep the conservative option alive by rallying behind him, not Santorum or Perry. And while Perry was pulling only 4 percent in the NBC poll, his decision to heed the advice of Red State founder Erick Erickson—a diehard supporter who urged him to quit—gives Newt a new burst of momentum. And Gingrich is not likely to be shy and retiring at the CNN debate Thursday night.

Still, while a Gingrich upset would send him into Florida’s Jan. 31 contest with a head of steam, the fact remains that Romney still has a well-financed operation in the dozens of states that lie ahead. Newt, who still carries plenty of baggage, as the he-wanted-an-open-marriage Marianne interview reminds us, couldn’t even get on the Virginia ballot.

But the Romney juggernaut is built around the idea of inevitability, and the game could change if that notion is thrown into doubt.

NEWT'S EX

Newt Braces for Ex-Wife Interview

Marianne Gingrich reviving tawdry tale of infidelity in ABC interview

Marianne Gingrich is about to make news—simply by having gone in front of a television camera.

A knowledgeable insider says that Newt Gingrich’s second wife does not say anything in the taped interview with ABC News that she hasn’t said in previous print interviews. But to repeat her account of how their marriage failed—because the then-House speaker was having an affair—in a form that can be endlessly replayed on television could prove a serious distraction for the presidential candidate two days before the South Carolina primary.

The insider says ABC is weighing how to handle the Marianne interview with Brian Ross but that there’s a good chance it will run Thursday. Its existence first popped on the Drudge Report.

One question for the network is how long to wait for a response from the Gingrich campaign. Another is whether it would be unfair to air the potentially explosive interview too close to the South Carolina voting.

RICH ROMNEY

Romney's Embarrassment of Riches

Try as he might, the candidate can't finesse the fact that he's loaded

Sometimes I wish Mitt Romney would just say, “I’m rich, folks—deal with it.”

Seems like every time he talks about money, he manages to strike the wrong chord. And that can greatly complicate life for a presidential candidate who happens to be rolling in dough.

Romney’s by-the-way revelation that he pays close to 15 percent of his income in taxes was rather typical. It may be legal and logical that a guy who is living high on investment income, and paying a lower capital gains rate, winds up owing half or even one-third the rate of many Americans. But failing to directly address that yawning disparity gave the impression that Romney sees nothing wrong with it. Beyond that, he said with a smile, “I get speaker’s fees from time to time, but not very much.”

Yeah—only $374,000, it turns out. Nothing to write home about.

Now we all understand the game here. Romney, like all candidates, is campaigning as a guy who can help the middle class. He doesn’t want to appear out of touch. He wants to, uh, feel your pain. And he keeps tripping over his tongue in the process.

Having substantial wealth obviously doesn’t disqualify a political candidate. FDR was filthy rich. So were Jack Kennedy and Nelson Rockefeller. Romney may have been the son of a governor and former auto executive, but he went out and made his millions as a vulture, I mean venture, capitalist. (Of course, no one forced him and his Bain partners to pose for a photo with greenbacks spilling out of their clothing, but that was when greed was good.)

It’s when Romney tries to depict himself as an ordinary bloke that he sounds like George H.W. Bush talking about pork rinds and marveling at a supermarket scanner.

Unemployment is a big problem? Well, Romney says he used to worry about getting “pink slips” too. His campaign couldn’t say exactly when this was. Something about when he was starting out with a joint law and business degree from Harvard. Must have been nerve-wracking.

In fact, Romney joked to one crowd that he was unemployed himself at the moment. And while he may have been referring to health insurance firms when he told a corporate group he likes to fire people, it was hardly the best phraseology for a man whose business experience was based on taking over companies and often squeezing thousands of jobs out of them, sometimes pushing them into bankruptcy.

The man seemingly can’t help himself from challenging other candidates to $10,000 bets as if he were playing with Monopoly money.

I was with Romney at a New Hampshire event when a woman in the crowd said disapprovingly that he had four houses. Not true, he responded. That’s right, he has three, including an estate in San Diego whose size he is doubling.

And can you remember a presidential candidate ever giving someone 50 bucks? No doubt Romney was sincere in wanting to help the homeless woman, but it sounded a discordant note.

So maybe Romney should give up the charade and just be himself. Say it loud and say it proud: I’m one wealthy son of a gun! And on that point, no one could challenge his authenticity.

JUAN WILLIAMS

Juan Williams Brushes Off the Boos

Did the Fox commentator go too far in pressing Gingrich about minorities?

Throughout the endless series of presidential debates, there haven’t been many questions about black folks.

Juan Williams single-handedly changed that on Monday night.

As the only liberal Fox News commentator to serve on a debate panel, not to mention the channel’s most recognizable African-American, Williams did not shy away from the opportunity to put the GOP candidates on the spot.

Any real discussion of minorities has “been totally absent from the Republican debates,” Williams told me. “It being Martin Luther King Day and in South Carolina, I thought it was the right time to broach the questions…I was aware and my bosses were aware that the questions I was asking might not be popular in that crowd and in that space, a conservative crowd in South Carolina.”

My initial reaction was that Williams was, forgive me, ghettoizing himself. Should a journalist act as a spokesman for a certain point of view? Did he risk looking like he was pursuing his own agenda?

But on reflection, if Juan didn’t interject those subjects into the campaign, who knows if they would ever come up? The media, like the candidates, seem entirely focused on the middle class and the wealthy. Poor people are passé.

“You’re talking about running for president of the United States in a 21st-century country in which more than a third are people of color, that has extremely high rates of immigration, and has an African-American president,” Williams says. “This is not some form of tokenism. These are central issues for these times.”

So let’s go to the videotape.

Williams asked Mitt Romney about his hard line on illegal immigration: “Are you alienating Latino voters that Republicans will need to win the general election?”

He told Rick Santorum that “the Obama administration has not specifically addressed high levels of joblessness and a 25 percent poverty rate in black America…Do you feel the time has come to take special steps to deal with the extraordinary level of poverty afflicting one race of America?”

Williams asked Ron Paul about a study which “finds that blacks who are jailed at four times the rate of whites in South Carolina are most often convicted on drug offenses. Do you see racial disparities in drug-related arrests and convictions as a problem?”

And then there was the showdown with Newt.

“Speaker Gingrich,” Williams began, “you recently said black Americans should demand jobs, not food stamps. You also said poor kids lack a strong work ethic and proposed having them work as janitors in their schools. Can’t you see that this is viewed, at a minimum, as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to black Americans?”

Gingrich, of course, didn’t see it that way at all. He said his daughter Jackie had worked as a church janitor when she was 13 and

Williams pushed back hard, almost as if he was a rival candidate. He said his e-mail and Twitter accounts have “been inundated with people of all races who are asking if your comments are not intended to belittle the poor and racial minorities.”

The crowd started booing lustily.

Williams kept going, noting that a woman in a black church had asked Gingrich why he refers to Obama as “the food stamp president.”

The booing got louder.

Newt ignored the racial aspect of the question, saying “more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history. Now, I know among the politically correct, you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable.”

Of course, Obama hasn’t “put” anyone on food stamps; people (more of them white) have flocked to the program because of the ailing economy. But in the parlance of politics, Gingrich had won the moment.

“He was flinging red-meat answers intending to fire up the crowd,” Williams told me. “He had stacked the crowd with his supporters. I don’t think he answered the question. He used it as an effective platform to appeal to a conservative audience.”

Newt’s focus on an alleged lack of “work ethic,” says Williams, ignores the high jobless rate among young people, “especially for poor and minority young people.”

Williams is smart to brush off the booing. While he risks coming off as an advocate, he asked some revealing questions at the South Carolina debate—and, in the wake of his firing by National Public Radio, further raised his profile at Fox.

jon huntsman

Why Huntsman Is History

The low-key candidate could never find his footing in a crazy campaign

I’ve rarely seen a politician get less traction than Jon Huntsman.

He was close to invisible in this presidential race, except for all the media fawning. Huntsman’s decision to drop out Monday wasn’t much of a surprise, except for the fact that it came six days after he loudly announced that New Hampshire had given him a “ticket to ride”—this after a weak third-place finish. Unlike the Beatles song, it didn’t last long, not even until the South Carolina voting this Saturday.

Huntsman says he wants to back the Republican with the best chance of beating Barack Obama—that would be Mitt Romney—but I suspect he also wants to spare himself further embarrassment.

One of the big losers? South Carolina’s largest newspaper, The State, which endorsed Huntsman on Sunday as a man of “honor and old-fashioned decency and pragmatism.” Can the editors un-endorse?

Huntsman was a perfectly fine governor of Utah—quite conservative, in fact—but by the standards of today’s Republican Party, he was practically a card-carrying lefty. He never fit in with the mood of primary voters. He was unwilling to pander on climate change and other hot-button issues.

There was a patrician air around Huntsman—like Romney, the son of a rich and successful father—and he wasn’t a particularly dynamic candidate. He was charisma-challenged. He tended to fade in debates. He had no coherent message, other than that he wasn’t a far-right crazy. If he uttered a single memorable line in the past year, it escapes my memory.

He was right that serving as ambassador to China shouldn’t have been held against him, but given the GOP’s anathema for Obama, it was. Beyond that, Huntsman’s campaign was underfunded as his father declined to share the family fortune in service of his political ambitions.

It was clear that Huntsman was going nowhere when he was reduced to a one-state campaign, in New Hampshire, where Romney already had a big lead. Nothing less than an upset victory was going to revive his political pulse. In a campaign in which even Herman Cain grabbed his moment in the spotlight, Huntsman could never get above the low single digits nationally. Even the reporters grew bored and gave up on him.

The irony is that Huntsman might have made a strong general election candidate with a potential appeal to independents. But he was never in any danger of winning the nomination. He never even got to the point where the pundits wondered whether his Mormonism would hurt him. His daughters started getting more attention than he was.

In another era, Jon Huntsman might have been a plausible White House contender. But not in the Republican Party of 2012.

NEWT GINGRICH

Newt's Surprising S.C. Strength

For all his problems, Gingrich is running just behind Romney

What if Newt Gingrich wins the South Carolina primary?

It's not that far-fetched, even though the Beltway press has written him off as a serious contender. Mitt Romney is leading Gingrich 29 to 24 percent in the state, according to Public Policy Polling, which means Newt is within striking distance.

Would conservatives coalesce around him as the anti-Mitt? What if Rick Santorum (14 percent in the poll, a point behind Ron Paul) and Rick Perry (6 percent) were forced to drop out? Most of their supporters might gravitate to Gingrich, giving him a fighting chance in Florida and beyond. It doesn't help Newt that 150 Christian leaders meeting in Texas on Saturday endorsed Santorum, although how much clout they have remains to be seen. (How's this for spin? A Gingrich statement says, "Conservative evangelical leaders spoke very clearly today that Mitt Romney will not be the nominee.  It is encouraging for the Republican Party to have two choices in Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.")

The odds are certainly against a Newt victory, given all the baggage that Gingrich carries. But after getting buried under negative ads by a pro-Romney Super PAC in Iowa, he is returning the favor in South Carolina, courtesy of $5 million to the pro-Gingrich Super PAC from casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. (Yes, Newt has been forced to ask that the ads be fixed or taken down after fact-checkers shredded it, but he gets to have it both ways: taking the high ground while Romney gets pouned.)

The Public Policy folks find good news for Romney when they drill down, particularly in the strong focus on financial matters: “39% say jobs and the economy are their top issue, closely followed by 34% who pick government spending and reducing the debt. Asked who they trust most on economic issues 35% pick Romney to 25% for Gingrich.

What about South Carolina's reputation as a cauldron of conservatism with a strong evangelical base? Turns out only 4 percent say social issues are most important to them, and on that subject, “Santorum only beats Romney 23-21 with Gingrich at 19% and Paul at 14%. Romney's also basically running even with evangelicals, getting 27% to 28% for Gingrich and 17% for Santorum.”

These numbers suggest that Gingrich is on target in painting Romney as a job-destroying capitalist from his Bain days (though Newt doesn’t seem to be peddling a jobs plan of his own). It also suggests that his growing emphasis on Romney’s record as a pro-abortion governor of Massachusetts won’t get much traction, not when people are worried about pink slips. Unemployment in South Carolina is 9.9 percent, higher than in Iowa or New Hampshire.

A couple of warning signs for Romney: his net favorability has dropped 7 points in the last week (to 57/33), while Gingrich’s has risen 4 points (to 51/37). And 58 percent of the primary voters surveyed don’t want Romney to be the nominee.

In that case, they had better throw their collective weight behind one rival. Gingrich picked up on the point Friday, telling a group of Republicans: “If we end up splitting the conservative vote, we’re going to stumble into nominating somebody that 95 percent of the people in this room would be very uncomfortable with.”

A self-serving argument, to be sure. But unless enough South Carolina conservatives buy it, next Saturday’s primary could begin the Romney coronation.

ROMNEY

Romney Feeling Bain Pain

A burgeoning debate about his takeover firm threatens to define his candidacy.

Has Mitt Romney weathered the Bain-bashing, or have his days as a corporate takeover artist come to define him?

The leading Republican critics, Newt Gingrich (“rich people figuring out clever ways to loot a company”) and Rick Perry (“vultures…sitting out there on the tree limb waiting for the company to get sick and then they swoop in, they eat the carcass”), seem to be toning things down in the face of a conservative backlash from the likes of Rush Limbaugh. But the debate over whether Romney’s record as a businessman continues to rage, threatening to tarnish his chief credential for the presidency.

It’s almost like John Kerry having to defend his Vietnam War medals, a development that could turn Romney’s greatest strength—the notion that he can use his boardroom skills to fix the economy—into a potential weakness. Not that any of this is exactly new. When Romney ran against Ted Kennedy in 1994, Democrats ran ads featuring some of the hundreds of workers who lost their jobs at American Pad and Paper after Bain Capital took over the firm two years earlier. In fact, one of them, Randy Johnson, recently spoke to ABC’s Brian Ross, saying: “It was really one of the worst things I think I've had to deal with, because people … were at my desk crying, 'What do I do? I don't have a good college education… I just wanted to get to retirement…Families were devastated.”

Romney has tried several defenses, none of which have gotten traction. He’s touted Bain success stories like Staples (though some of its 100,000 jobs were added after he left the company). He’s likened Bain’s investments in companies that shed jobs to President Obama’s auto bailout, since some of the car companies shrunk as well. Now he’s retreated to conflating his past job with capitalism itself, accusing critics of an “assault on free enterprise.” Of course, Bain did what such companies are supposed to do: take over ailing companies, cut costs and slash jobs if necessary, and try to squeeze profit from them. That’s the game. Up close, it can look ugly. But Romney can’t run away from it.

In fact, says Fred Barnes in the Wall Street Journal, “Mr. Romney bears some of the blame for the awkward situation. Candidates for president normally build their campaigns on a big idea. Mr. Gingrich's is that he would crush Mr. Obama in debates and win the election. Mr. Perry's is that he would extend the economic success of Texas to the entire nation. Mr. Romney's is himself, the man whose skill at economic revival was on display at Bain. This is an invitation to attacks. What Mr. Romney needs is a bigger idea to deflect attention from Bain.”

He also needs to deflect attention from such critics as Sarah Palin, who used a Sean Hannity appearance to call on Mitt to release his tax returns and added: “Governor Romney has claimed to have created 100,000 jobs at Bain, and people are wanting to know: is there proof?”

Something tells me Romney isn’t Palin’s first choice for the nomination.

The downside of the Bain saga is that it’s closed and complicated. As Politico’s Keach Hagey observes, “For most business stories — and certainly those dealing with public companies — reporters would have other ways of obtaining information besides being spoon fed by the company itself. But Bain has blocked many of the avenues that would enable reporters to get information on their own, declining to give The Wall Street Journal a list of the companies it has invested in (‘citing privacy reasons’) or even any information about when its involvement with its investments ended.”

And, she notes, “it’s a political story that requires financial reporting expertise. From a scan of bylines, it appears that most, but not all, outlets that have financial expertise don’t tend to put those reporters on the Bain story.” So much more fun writing about the horse race.

It’s hard to assess the damage right now. Romney won big in New Hampshire, even though the Bain story dominated the last 48 hours. One school of thought says his Republican rivals have done him an inadvertent favor by hauling out the issue now, which will make it seem like old news by the time the Democrats start firing their heavy artillery in the fall. But it seems more likely that destroying jobs at Bain will become an indelible part of Romney’s resume—one that voters will have to weigh as part of the package.

Why Olberman Is Angry

The tensions at Current TV run deeper than a spat over election coverage

Keith Olbermann won’t be on the air at Current TV for Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, just as he was on the sidelines for last week’s Iowa caucuses.

The media narrative is, in a phrase, there he goes again, Olbermann being his famously difficult self, as he was at MSNBC, which he left last year after a huge rift with management, and at ESPN.

But I can tell you after doing some digging that the two sides see this impasse very differently. I can also tell you that it’s not yet resolved, optimistic public statements to the contrary.

Although Olbermann is the star anchor and “chief news officer” under his $10-million-a-year deal, he was mentioned nowhere in the Current press releases for two new shows: the recently debuted Cenk Uygur program and the soon-to-launch show featuring former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm. That was telling. And while Olbermann was consulted in advance about the new hires—he doesn’t have veto power—some Current executives believe he doesn’t particularly want to share the spotlight with other budding stars.

Thus it was that Granholm and Ugyur were on the air for the Iowa coverage—along with Al Gore, Current’s co-founder—and Olbermann was not. In fact, his Countdown program was preempted for the live caucus coverage.

“We’ve been wanting Keith to be part of our election coverage and hope he will be in the future,” says Current TV President David Bohrman, a former CNN executive who joined the network last fall.

Bohrman asked Olbermann two months ago to take a leading role in Current’s primary and caucus coverage, and he declined. And here the perspectives sharply diverge.

Management believes that Olbermann didn’t think the niche network, which had mostly featured taped programming, would cover the primary caucuses without him. The lowly rated four-hour block on caucus night preempted his show.

Olbermann’s camp believes Current, with its limited resources, had no business taking on this new challenge without first fixing the technical problems that have plagued Countdown.

No one disputes that the glitches have been serious, with lighting failures literally leaving the anchor in the dark. Olbermann’s side is frustrated that these problems have dragged on for months. Why, then, is Current building studios for Granholm (in San Francisco) and Uygur (in L.A.) without fixing New York? But management faults Olbermann and a previous president for picking the Manhattan building that now seems unable to support a modern, high-definition studio; the control room is a truck parked on the street outside.

Bottom line: both sides are miffed. Some executives think Olbermann needs to rail against management (even though he is part of management now) because it’s an integral part of his personality. Olbermann appears hurt that the dispute became public and has been relatively restrained (though he’s ripped the media coverage of his travails on Twitter). The publicity has not been kind, with New York Times columnist David Carr writing that Keith “seems perpetually angry” and “his checkered employment history is of a piece with his reflexive on-air aggression.”

Still, the fact that Olbermann is generating headlines—even with a show that reaches about 200,000 viewers, down from more than 1 million at MSNBC—shows there is still plenty of interest in him as a personality. He has, in fact, put Current TV on the map. The question now is whether he and his new bosses are willing to sail in the same direction.

RICK SANTORUM

Press Hits Santorum As Wheeler-Dealer

Some belated scrutiny of the congressional record that later earned him big bucks.

The media assault on Rick Santorum has begun.

Turns out he was a tough-guy lawmaker who played hardball with lobbyists and made a bundle after leaving the Senate.

In other words, a typical member of Congress.

This is all fair game, mind you. In fact, it's the kind of information the voters of Iowa might have found useful before propelling Santorum into a virtual tie with Mitt Romney in the caucuses (or a victory, if reports of a Romney overcount are to be believed).

BYE BACHMANN

Bachmann's Oddly Muted Exit

The congresswoman bails out after her campaign crashes in Iowa

The Republican presidential field has lost its only woman.

To no one’s surprise, Michele Bachmann called it quits on Wednesday morning, hours after skidding to an embarrassing last-place finish in Iowa, the state where she was born and where her troubled campaign made its stand.

In an oddly stilted speech in which she read her remarks, the normally fluid speaker recited her talking points against Barack Obama and repeatedly slamming his health care law. “I will continue fighting to defeat the president’s agenda of socialism,” she said. About the only reference she made to her drubbing was to say, “The people of Iowa spoke with a very clear voice…I have no regrets. I never compromised my principles.”

It was a strangely unemotional last chapter for a politician whose trademark is her passion.

By drawing just 6,073 votes in the caucuses Tuesday night, the Minnesota congresswoman was forced to limp off the field. It was an abrupt ending for the woman who won the much-hyped Iowa straw poll in August, landed on the cover of Newsweek, and began a steady trajectory downward.

Bachmann never seemed to settle on a coherent strategy, losing her campaign manager, Ed Rollins, early on, and spent the last few days accusing her Iowa chairman, Kent Sorenson, of selling out for money by defecting to Ron Paul’s campaign. Rollins told Politico that Bachmann pulled her punches against Mitt Romney in hopes of preserving a shot at becoming his running mate.

A founder of the House tea party caucus, Bachmann was never able to expand her base beyond evangelical conservatives, who soon drifted off to Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and ultimately Rick Santorum, who finished in a virtual tie with Romney. She tried to stress her legislative experience but often wound up touting her unsuccessful opposition to Obamacare and declaring that its author would be a one-term president.

Bachmann also committed several high-profile blunders, from mistakenly saying the Revolutionary War began in Concord, N.H. to repeating an unfounded claim that the HPV vaccine causes mental retardation. She was also embroiled in controversy over once having said her religion requires her to be subservient to her husband, Marcus, who was by her side during her withdrawal speech.

Gingrich, Santorum take off the gloves

In the blink of a news cycle, the Republican campaign has turned nasty.

Ronald Reagan’s famed 11th commandment is toast.

Newt Gingrich called Mitt Romney a “liar,” and Rick Santorum called Ron Paul “disgusting.”

Feeling the pressure much?

Newt’s attack makes tactical sense, though for a guy who’s been complaining about negativity and trumpeting the virtues of a positive campaign, he risks coming across not just as harsh but petulant. Santorum’s attack makes no sense.

In Gingrich’s case, yes, he was responding to a Norah O’Donnell question on CBS’s Early Show, but he chose to embrace the L-word. (Gingrich is looking angry these days, but he has a point: Reporters haven’t pressed Romney on why he won’t even express disapproval while a PAC staffed by his loyalists dumped more than $3 million in negative ads on Newt’s head.)

So how is Mitt lying? “Do you really want a Massachusetts moderate who won’t level with you to run against Barack Obama who, frankly, will just tear him apart? He will not survive against the Obama machine.” The charge goes to the core of the Romney candidacy, suggesting the evolution from his pro-choice, pro-gay rights days is entirely inauthentic. This may be the only argument that could enable Gingrich to overtake Romney if the former speaker survives Iowa. But it also reminds people of Neutron Newt and his history of overheated rhetoric (Democrats are the “enemy of normal Americans” and so on).

As for Santorum, why is he wasting his artillery on Paul? Yes, he’d like to finish ahead of the Texas congressman in the caucuses, but it’s virtually impossible for Ron Paul to win the GOP nomination—even Paul says he doesn’t envision himself in the Oval Office.

According to FoxNews.com, Santorum was responding to reports of robocalls that accused the former senator of being pro-choice and against the Second Amendment. Santorum has every right to denounce such attacks; as John Kerry learned, it can be fatal to stay silent while unfair charges are hurled at you. But if Santorum indeed called Paul disgusting, he risks coming off as a schoolyard bully and alienating Paul sympathizers who might be persuaded he’s a more viable choice.

At this stage of the game, the candidates are tired, frustrated and a bit prickly (except for Romney, who still has every hair in place). That’s when you say things you might soon regret.

FISTICUFFS

Perry v. Politico, Santorum v. O'Reilly

Last-minute dustups before the caucuses

Scenes from the final hours of the Iowa frenzy:

One of the problems with writing a premature obituary for a presidential candidate is that he’s still around to push back. Politico practically played taps for Rick Perry in an extensively reported piece on the clashes between his Texas coterie and national strategists, with one “senior” adviser quotedas saying there "has never been a more ineptly orchestrated, just unbelievably subpar campaign for president of the United States than this one."

On MSNBC, when Perry said he didn’t know who the site was talking to, Politico’s Mike Allen responded that the sources “are members of your staff.”

"You got a name? You got a name? You got a name?" Perry asked. "If you don't have a name to tell me this individual said this, then I don't take that as a corroborating source."

Actually, corroborating sources are often unnamed. But the governor has a point that the harshest criticism in the piece came from those who hid behind the curtain of anonymity.

Rick Santorum, who had trouble buying a headline all year, is taking a swipe at the “media elite” (which is finally following him around).

The Daily Caller reports that Santorum has extended his indictment to Fox News: “Bill O’Reilly has refused to put me on his program. As far as he was concerned, I wasn’t a worthy enough candidate to earn a spot, sit across from him and be on his program.”

Life is indeed tough when you’re an also-ran.(O'Reilly responded Monday night that he had in fact avoided Santorum because he'd been "polling in the single digits," but invited him to appear Wednesday.)

“Here you have folks supposedly in the conservative media who are saying, ‘You know — well, we’re going to choose who we think is going to win,’” Santorum said. “And then complain that the mainstream media does the same thing.”

Well, he’s right about that (though you rarely hear winning candidates carp about their coverage). Fortunately for all of us, the voters get the final say.

No, it wasn’t a New Year’s Eve prank. Rupert Murdoch is on Twitter.

And promptly tweeted some nice words about Santorum’s recent success in Iowa. Does that mean he’ll be getting more facetime on Fox?

But Murdoch also learned the danger of hitting the send button too quickly. As the Sydney Morning Herald reports, he sent this tweet: “Maybe Brits have too many holidays for broke country!” And later deleted it. Too late, Rupe.

Romney campaign reporters refused to stay at the Comfort Suites and, well, staged a mutiny to get a better hotel. Wait, does that make them part of the dreaded 1 percent?

NYTIMES

Did Iraqis Snooker NY Times?

An opposition leader says article was falsely published under his byline.

The Iraqi political standoff is so muddled and confusing that even the New York Times may have been sucked into a disinformation effort.

The paper obviously attempts to verify the identities of those submitting op-ed pieces. But now a prominent Iraqi official is saying he never approved the words that appeared under his byline earlier this week.

On Wednesday, the Times published a column by three leaders of the opposition party Iraqiya, urging the Obama administration to pressure Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki into a power-sharing arrangement. Violence has erupted recently after a year in which Maliki has refused to form a coalition government with the opposition party, which scored well in the 2010 election. Administration officials have in fact urged Maliki’s Shiite government to share power with Sunni leaders.

The op-ed’s signers included Osama al-Nujaifi I, speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, and Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister.

“The United States must make clear that a power-sharing government is the only viable option for Iraq and that American support for Mr. Maliki is conditional,” they wrote, on his “dissolving the unconstitutional entities through which he now rules. Likewise, American assistance to Iraq's army, police and intelligence services must be conditioned on those institutions being representative of the nation rather than one sect or party.”

Now comes the oops part.

Nujaifi now charges in a statement that he had nothing to do with the opinion piece, according to Agence France-Presse.

"The article published in the New York Times... has been written without the knowledge of speaker Nujaifi," the statement said. Nujaifi’s office added that his name was "inserted in an attempt by some people to diminish the importance of his leadership."

Perhaps the speaker is just disavowing an article that became politically inconvenient. But if he’s right, the Times has been had.

Update: Saturday, 9:25 a.m.

Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy says the paper was approached about the op-ed a week ago by Jaber al-Jaberi, a member of the Iraqi Parliament and a representative of the Iraqiya party. On Friday, says Murphy, he confirmed “that all three officials had discussed the essay and that it represented the party’s point of view.” What’s more, she notes, “after the article was published online on Tuesday evening, party officials had the essay translated into Arabic and distributed over e-mail.”

Despite the statement by Nujaifi, Murphy says, neither he nor a representative has contacted the Times with any concerns. The paper has been unsuccessful in trying to reach Nujaifi.

RON PAUL

Ron Paul, Polls and Panic

The conservative media flips out over the latest front-runner

The Ron Paul Panic is officially under way.

The Texas congressman has been gaining strength in Iowa all year, but the media—and the Republican establishment—have been content to treat him dismissively.

Oh yeah. Interesting character. Seems to have tapped into something. Has a cult following. He can’t win the nomination, the refrain goes, but he’s an interesting sideshow.

But a couple of Iowa polls showing Paul bursting into first place—past the previously hot Newt Gingrich and the slow but steady Mitt Romney—are forcing the press to take him more seriously.

I was struck on a recent visit to Iowa how a crowd of voters reacted approvingly no matter what the 76-year-old candidate said. Cut a trillion bucks out of next year’s budget. Abolish the income tax and replace it with…nothing. Eliminate federal funding even for cancer research; none of the government’s business. Return to the gold standard. Heads kept nodding in a packed library meeting room. Now the press is starting to recycle old stories about Paul, just in case you weren’t paying attention. From Tuesday’s New York Times:

“Representative Ron Paul of Texas is receiving new focus for decades-old unbylined columns in his political newsletters that included racist, anti-gay and anti-Israel passages that he has since disavowed.”

The Times piece acknowledges that the same material was disclosed during Paul’s 2008 campaign, but never mind, here it is again:

“A 1992 passage from the Ron Paul Political Report about the Los Angeles riots read, ‘Order was only restored in L.A. when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks.’ A passage in another newsletter asserted that people with AIDS should not be allowed to eat in restaurants because ‘AIDS can be transmitted by saliva’; in 1990 one of his publications criticized Ronald Reagan for having gone along with the creation of the federal holiday honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which it called ‘Hate Whitey Day.’”

It’s scary, eye-opening stuff, to be sure. Paul’s position is that he never saw the material in the publications he ran.

The NYT piece was prompted by a Weekly Standard story by James Kirchick, who in turn is recycling and expanding his four-year-old scoop:

“In January 2008, the New Republic ran my story reporting the contents of monthly newsletters that Paul published throughout the 1980s and 1990s. While a handful of controversial passages from these bulletins had been quoted previously, I was able to track down nearly the entire archive, scattered between the University of Kansas and the Wisconsin Historical Society…Though particular articles rarely carried a byline, the vast majority were written in the first person, while the title of the newsletter, in its various iterations, always featured Paul’s name: Ron Paul’s Freedom Report, the Ron Paul Political Report, the Ron Paul Survival Report, and the Ron Paul Investment Letter. What I found was unpleasant…

“Racial apocalypse was the most persistent theme of the newsletters; a 1990 issue warned of ‘The Coming Race War,’ and an article the following year about disturbances in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C., was entitled ‘Animals Take Over the D.C. Zoo.’ Paul alleged that Martin Luther King Jr., ‘the world-class philanderer who beat up his paramours,’ had also ‘seduced underage girls and boys.’…

“No conspiracy theory was too outlandish for Paul’s endorsement. One newsletter reported on the heretofore unknown phenomenon of ‘Needlin’,’ in which ‘gangs of black girls between the ages of 12 and 14” roamed the streets of New York and injected white women with possibly HIV-infected syringes.’”

The conservative press is leading the charge on this one, obviously concerned that Paul has the potential to tar the Republican Party. National Review Editor Rich Lowry concedes that “the Texas libertarian stands much closer to the emotional center of gravity of the party in his condemnations of government spending, crony capitalism, the Federal Reserve, and foreign intervention.” But then he says:

“Paul never knows when to stop. He lets his suspicion of centralized power slip into paranoia worthy of a second-rate Hollywood thriller about government malevolence. In January 2010, he declared: ‘There’s been a coup, have you heard? It’s the CIA coup. The CIA runs everything, they run the military.’”

You mean that’s not true?

But then we get to the heart of the matter: How dare Paul go out, campaign hard, organize the state and threaten to win Iowa?

“Iowa caucus-goers are protective of their preeminent place in the nominating process,” says Lowry. “If they deliver victory to a history-making Ron Paul, no one should take them as seriously again.”

So if Mitt or Newt wins Iowa, the caucuses are valid—but if Paul pulls it off, they’re a joke?

Still, that’s the hot debate right now. Politico’s big headline: “Will Ron Paul Kill the Caucuses?”

“The alarms are sounding in Iowa.

“Conservatives and Republican elites in the state are divided over who to support for the GOP nomination, but they almost uniformly express concern over the prospect that Ron Paul and his army of activist supporters may capture the state’s 2012 nominating contest — an outcome many fear would do irreparable harm to the future role of the first-in-the-nation caucuses.” And what if he does? Here’s a take from Slate’s Dave Weigel:

“The conservative press, which has been bored but hostile to Paul all year (just see the National Review’s cover story), will remind its readers that Paul wants to legalize prostitution and narcotics, end aid to Israel (as part of a general no-aid-for-anyone policy), and end unconstitutional programs like Medicare and social security. The liberal press will discover that he’s a John Birch Society supporter who for years published lucrative newsletters studded with racist gunk…

“Maybe all of this would drag Paul down. But would it have to? In 2008, the candidate stuck it out through every primary. In 2012, he’ll have more cash than anyone except Romney or Perry—he just raised $4 million in a weekend moneybomb. His supporters will blow off the scrutiny as just so much crap from the corporate media.”

The same corporate media that pretty much ignored Paul when he finished a shade behind Michele Bachmann in the Ames straw poll last summer.

The Iowa caucuses aren’t very predictive of who will win the nomination. Just ask Mike Huckabee. And no, I don’t think Ron Paul has a shot at the nomination, either. But people in the press have to ask themselves: If Paul wins and we immediately discount it, are we really playing fair?

O’REILY BATTLES

Romney Vs. O’Reilly

The candidate stops stiffing the press—is it working?

Mitt Romney continued his media blitz on Monday night by venturing onto the Factor.

In a sitdown with Bill O’Reilly, Mitt recacted calmly when the host declared that he was “going to the right,” that “a lot of conservatives don’t trust you” and that “they think you’re a phony.” He didn’t even push back when O’Reilly said he’d been a moderate in Massachusetts. Romney did say he’d been “simply wrong” on abortion and declined to take Bill-O’s bait and call Obama a “socialist,” retreating to the familiar he’s-in-over-his head.

It was Romney’s second appearance on Fox News in two days. On Sunday he actually looked, well, something bordering on emotional.

He was on Fox News Sunday when Chris Wallace asked about his wife’s battle with multiple sclerosis. “Probably the toughest time in my life was—was standing there with Ann as we hugged each other and the diagnosis came,” Romney said. “And I was afraid it was Lou Gehrig’s disease….And [the doctor] stepped out of the room, and we stood up and hugged each other, and I said to her, ‘As long as it’s not something fatal, I’m just fine. Look, I’m happy in life as long as I’ve got my soulmate with me.’”

Will that exchange move any votes in Iowa? Maybe not. But the appearance—Romney’s first on a Sunday show in 20 months--gave the candidate a chance to talk about more than health care mandates and his record at Bain Capital.

For the past year, the former Massachusetts governor has kept the press at bay, entering what’s been dubbed the Mittness Protection Program. It was a cautious, front-runner’s strategy designed to sit on his lead and avoid mistakes. It also made a man accused of being “robotic” and “buttoned up,” as Wallace put it, feel remote and unable to connect with voters.

A few weeks ago, Romney refused to cooperate with a Time cover story and wound up with the headline, “Why Don’t They Like Me?” He refused to play ball with a New York Times Magazine cover piece as well, granting access only to the softer-focus Parade.

The fact is, voters want to see presidential contenders answer tough questions, and Romney had gotten rusty, as was evident by his testy reaction to an aggressive series of issue questions by Fox’s Bret Baier.

Now Romney is conducting something of a media blitz, and the reason his obvious: he’s no longer the front runner. The Newt surge was threatening to leave him in the dust. Miraculously, he suddenly became available to Politico, the New York Times and the Washington Post.

He began to build a case for himself. With Politico, he said he would not be throwing red meat at the conservative base: “That’s not who I am…I’m not going to say outrageous things.” With the Times, he adopted the Z-word that reporter Jeff Zeleny floated about Gingrich: “Zany is not what we need in a president. Zany is great in a campaign. It’s great on talk radio. It’s great in print, it makes for fun reading. But in terms of a president, we need a leader.”

With Wallace, Romney easily finessed questions about why he’s not offering the rich a bigger tax cut (“The wealthy are doing just fine”), not pushing to abolish Cabinet departments (“I’m just going to make sure we study them”) and why he made health insurance compulsory in Massachusetts (“it was right for our state”). He handles himself well, if a little stiffly, in these sessions, making you wonder what he’s been afraid of.

Romney has passed up a ton of free media, as it’s called, by refusing these interviews. Of course, he’s yet to venture outside the relatively friendly confines of Fox. If you see Romney on with Rachel Maddow, you’ll know he’s ready to do whatever it takes to win the nomination.

About the Author

Author headshot

Howard Kurtz

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast and Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief, and writes the Spin Cycle blog. He also hosts CNN’s weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.

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