Republican candidates the morning after

Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum shift their focus to New Hampshire after a razor-thin vote in Iowa.


    Despite dissapointing results in Iowa, Gingrich stepped out in full force at a town hall in New Hampshire on Wednesday  [Thomas Alexander/Al Jazeera]

    Manchester, New Hampshire - The Iowa caucuses were brutal for Newt Gingrich.

    After leading in the state polls well into December, the former Speaker of the House of Representatives suffered a barrage of attack advertisements highlighting his two divorces, his ethics violations during his tenure in Congress, and his associations with troubled mortgage company Freddie Mac.

    Many of these ads were funded by "Super PACs" - organisations that, as a result of a 2010 Supreme Court ruling, can receive unlimited donations from corporations and unions to buy political advertising. Super PACs affiliated with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney were some of the main buyers.

    Partly as a result, Gingrich's support plummeted from a peak of about 30 per cent, and on Tuesday, he finished a disappointing fourth place in the Iowa caucuses.

    Culture warrior

    But Gingrich didn't spend any time moping: On Wednesday morning, he was in Concord, New Hampshire, holding a town hall event in a small, jam-packed room at the Holiday Inn.

    While Gingrich had harsh words for his Republican opponents at a press conference afterwards, in which he accused Romney of being "to the left of the vast majority of Republicans" and Texas congressman Ron Paul of saying "wild and outrageous things", he scarcely mentioned his fellow Republicans at the town hall itself.

    Instead, he inveighed against President Barack Obama, the federal government, and poor work ethics. He described Obama as having a "very, very authoritarian vision", subscribing to "the radicalism of Saul Alinsky", and believing that "class warfare is better than creating jobs".

    The former history professor, who styles himself as an intellectual, invoked Jamestown, the Scottish Enlightenment, and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, to drive home his points.

    And instead of wearing the standard American flag lapel pin - iconography that has become virtually de rigueur for US politicians since 9/11 - Gingrich wore a pin featuring a command flag flown by George Washington during the Revolutionary War, explaining that the country's first president "understood what 'commander-in-chief' meant".

    In fact, Gingrich referred to the Founding Fathers at seemingly every chance he got, prompting one questioner to ask him about what they would have thought about legalising marijuana.

    "I think Jefferson and Washington would've rather strongly discouraged you from growing marijuana," he said. "And their techniques of dealing with it would've been rather more violent than the current government."

    Perhaps in an effort to appeal to New Hampshire's gun-friendly, often libertarian-leaning Republicans, Gingrich warned of a "worldwide effort by elites to disarm everybody" and asserted that the right to bear arms is "given to you by God".

    His speech on policy prescriptions was short, although he did call for an overhaul of unemployment compensation stipulating that those out of work should have to "sign up with a business to learn a new skill" in order to receive benefits.

    He also reiterated his proposal to fire public school janitors, and hire students to do the work instead. Gingrich had tough love for the younger generation, saying today's students are using student loans as "a way to avoid reality".

    Andreas Reif, a registered Republican and father of seven who home schools his children, plans on voting for Gingrich.

    "As a moral conservative, his past has been troubling," says Reif, who has seen Gingrich four times now. But Reif, who wants a strong American presence overseas, says he thinks that "Newt gets the big picture" on national defence.

    Gingrich even may have picked up votes that Texas Governor Rick Perry may have lost with his decision to skip New Hampshire to campaign in South Carolina after his fifth-place finish in Iowa. Ayla Leuers, a recent college graduate, was planning on voting for Perry, but felt alienated when he decided not to campaign in her state. Now, after seeing Gingrich, she describes herself as being "very impressed" with him and no longer plans on voting for Perry.

    Riding high

    Twenty miles away in Manchester, the state's biggest city, Mitt Romney made a carefully staged appearance at the Manchester Central High School gymnasium.

    At the event, Arizona senator John McCain, the Republicans' presidential nominee in 2008, announced his endorsement of Romney after his narrow victory in Iowa. On Wednesday, a genial, jowly McCain told jokes and delivered an encomium to Romney in front of a largely student crowd.

    Highlighting Romney's strong support from his party's establishment, New Hampshire senator Kelly Ayotte, former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, and Manchester mayor Ted Gatsas all spoke at the event as well. Romney enjoys a big lead in the New Hampshire polls, where his support is currently around 40 per cent.

    One audience member took aim at his views on healthcare reform; a Chinese-American woman accused him of China-bashing. And a man dressed in a dolphin suit poked fun at what he considered to be Romney's "flip-flops".

    Romney didn't delve into many policy specifics, either - but unlike Gingrich, he shied away from culture-warrior rhetoric. Instead, he offered up a picture of a businessman with the know-how to create jobs.

    Those who support Romney commonly identify his business experience - in 1984 he founded Bain Capital, a private equity investment firm - as a plus for a presidential candidate during economically turbulent times.

    Former Manchester mayor Raymond Wieczorek said he'd met with Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul before eventually settling on Romney. "We've had three years of a person with no business experience" as president, rued Wieczorek.

    Franklin Bartlett, a priest from Manchester, also cited Romney's career in business, adding that McCain's endorsement will be a big help for Romney. "Right now we don't need more politicians," he said. "We need a businessman to get this country back in shape."

    Much of the audience, however, did not seem to be particularly enamoured with Romney.

    A young man affiliated with Occupy New Hampshire - who wore a Romney sticker on his sweatshirt - testily challenged Romney's much-publicised statement last August that "corporations are people". One audience member took aim at his views on healthcare reform; a Chinese-American woman accused him of China-bashing. And a man dressed in a dolphin suit poked fun at what he considered to be Romney's "flip-flops".

    Perhaps because Romney is the frontrunner, he's stirred up resistance from supporters of many other Republican candidates - especially those of Ron Paul.

    Several Ron Paul supporters were gathered outside the high school with protest signs. "I think he's terrible," said Leah Wolczko of Manchester, a libertarian and Ron Paul supporter, of Romney. "He's insincere. He's not a believer in constitutional government. He wants to drag us off into more war."

    Eight votes shy

    Tuesday night was also tough for former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. After a last-minute surge for the social conservative, he fell just eight votes short of beating Mitt Romney in the Iowa caucuses.

    But at a nursing home in Brentwood, New Hampshire, on Wednesday evening, Santorum was sunny and upbeat.

    Santorum delivered lengthy answers to questions posed by attendees, spending a particularly long time expounding on Social Security. He was aware of his wonkiness, and proud of it as he drew careful distinctions between different federal entitlement programmes and elaborating at length on Social Security eligibility ages - which he says should be raised to at least 70.

    Rick Santorum is among the more conservative candidates vying for the 2012 Republican nomination [Thomas Alexander/Al Jazeera]

    Santorum's brand is morality, a topic he expounded on at length Wednesday night.

    The chief political tension in the United States, as Santorum sees it, is that the "radical freedom" originally provided by the country's constitution only works for a "moral and religious people". Once a society becomes morally adrift, a larger government is needed to guard against wrongdoing - but this tends to encroach on personal and economic freedoms.

    Santorum's proposed solution is twofold: restore traditional values, and reduce the size and scope of government.

    Appropriately the Santorum campaign has marketed his travels as the "Faith, Family and Freedom Tour".

    Compared to the rest of the Republican field, Santorum is one of the more conservative candidates. He suggested halving the corporate income tax, eliminating it completely for manufacturing companies, and drilling for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge - a line that drew some of the biggest applause of the night.

    Santorum also said on Wednesday that a president has to "push back" against courts when they make unconstitutional decisions. His platform goes so far as to call for the elimination of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, a liberal-leaning court that serves nine western states.

    When a questioner asked about his stance on global warming, Santorum hedged, saying: "Pick a point in history where you haven't seen change in the climate". He surmised that "some other agenda" is behind proposed legislation to limit carbon dioxide emissions - namely, that the Obama administration "doesn't trust you" to make economic decisions.

    Despite his warm demeanour, Santorum was harsher on Obama than both Gingrich and Romney, excoriating the president for "systematically destroying the work ethic by the narcotic of government dependence. … He believes you are incapable of freedom."

    And, in a strain of Francophobia common among American conservatives, Santorum pointed out that the French revolution lacked a Declaration of Independence stipulating "rights from God that government had to respect".

    "We are a country that is going away from those God-given rights that are the foundation of limited government," he warned the crowd. "And we are a country that is on our way to France."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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