Bill Whalen

The Race, Like Dylan, Goes Electric

My Saturday morning began with an old Bob Dylan tune: “Like a Rolling Stone”.

About that song: it was released in July 1965, when a young Mitt Romney was preparing to head west from Michigan for his freshman year at Stanford University. Romney would spend only one year at Stanford before heading off to France in July 1966 as a Mormon missionary – all of which is recounted in The Real Romney, a new bio of the candidate’s formative years written by a pair of Boston Globe reporters.

During that same summer of 1965, Newt Gingrich received an undergraduate degree from Emory University, a flight surgeon by the name of Ron Paul transitioned from the U.S. Air Force to the Air National Guard, and Rick Santorum (all of seven years old in 1965) was on the move to Butler County, Pennsylvania, north of Pittsburgh.

Now then, back to Bob Dylan’s song.

Dylan was burned out at the time he wrote the classic (ranked #1 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”), having returned from a European tour. As he said in a magazine interview, “I was very drained, and the way things were going, it was a very draggy situation”.

His song was a preview of what was ahead for an America about to be engulfed by social unrest – a ballad of anger and resentment, but also a social commentary in that it suggests something to be gained from casting off past friends and possessions.

After Saturday’s vote in South Carolina – a stirring win for Gingrich and a troublesome setback for Romney – “draggy situation” is an apt phrase for what lies ahead in the Republican search for a standard-bearer.

With 10 days until the Jan. 31 vote in Florida, let’s see if Gingrich can build on three “m’s”: (1) money – he’ll need plenty of it, with the primaries now spreading into multiple times zones and larger electorates in February and beyond; (2) momentum – he’ll need to build beyond the conservative and Christian evangelical base that carried him home in South Carolina; and (3) mayhem – as brilliant as he was in the two televised debates, Gingrich was also deft in doing two things at once: playing off conservatives’ longing for a fiery champion all the while keeping Romney off balance (and off his game) by chipping away at his rival’s clumsy handling of when to release his current and past income-tax returns.

As for the Romney camp, let’s see how it reacts to this, its first significant bump in the road. All campaigns hit them; they differ in their ability to handle sudden and unexpected adversity.

And with that, let’s return to a few other Bob Dylan songs to assess the situation.

“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”. Despite what just transpired in South Carolina, the match is still on Romney’s racquet – the race is all about delegates, and Gingrich received only 19 of them in South Carolina – one-sixtieth of the number needed to secure the nomination. That said, it’s nervous time in Romney World. And it won’t be any better a few days from now, when Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels gives the Republican response – presumably, a good one – to Tuesday’s State of the Union Address, likely prompting a chorus of “can’t we do better?” talk from the GOP establishment. Romney’s advisors needn’t panic; his campaign was built on the assumption of a long fight for the nomination. That’s what the GOP likely can expect, for the next three months.

“Blowin’ in the Wind”. Fitting for a state smack dab in the middle of the Atlantic hurricane belt, something big was swept away on Saturday night: the Republicans’ orderly way of choosing their nominee. Historically, South Carolina is the tiebreaker to the split verdict in Iowa and New Hampshire – the winner in the Palmetto State taking the lead for good. That’s how it played out for Ronald Reagan, George Bush pere et fils, Bob Dole and John McCain. Not so, in this gyration. A race without a clear frontrunner is something new to Republican politics – and it’s an uncomfortable fit for a party that bases its choosing on logic and order.

“I Feel a Change Comin’ On”. Romney was indecisive on his tax returns during the lead-up to the South Carolina vote; Gingrich and Santorum recognized that and jumped him in the debates. Even worse, on the campaign trail, Romney’s rivals made him the butt of jokes. Now’s the time for someone in Romney’s camp – if such a person exists – to get in the candidate’s face and tell him to stand up for himself (think Roger Ailes, in the car with the elder George Bush, on the way to that interview with Dan Rather). Americans admire business acumen; American voters respond to a fighter (a good place to do so: the Jan. 26 candidates’ debate in Jacksonville).

“Thunder on the Mountain”. Attacks on Gingrich, led by supposedly independent super PACS, were effective in Iowa. In Florida and beyond, they’re now a necessity. Santorum laid the groundwork in South Carolina with this debate line: “I don’t want a nominee that I have to worry about . . . what he’s going to say next.” Perhaps it’s time for Romney to trot out a series of third-party testimonials from individuals from the former Speaker’s past (surely he can round up some current and former congressman from the Sunshine State to do the bodywork).

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