The Election 2012 Weekly Report: On to the Caucuses

The Election 2012 Weekly Report: On to the Caucuses

Romney pulls away

Mitt Romney decisively won Florida’s primacy on Tuesday with 46 percent of the vote. Newt Gingrich came in second with a disappointing 32 percent. Trailing far behind were Rick Santorum with 13 percent and Ron Paul with 7 percent. But Gingrich in a concession speech that often felt more like a victory speech, vowed to continue fighting in what he described as a "two-person race" between himself and the "Massachusetts moderate." Santorum and Paul are also staying in the hunt.

Several of the foreign-policy issues that had been billed as potential game changers this season appeared not to be major factors in Florida. Candidates have been highly vocal on Israel in hopes of peeling Jewish votes away from President Barack Obama, who has publicly clashed with the Israeli government on several occasions. But if a significant number of Jews are changing their voter registration to Republican, they’ve been quiet so far. Poll analyst Nate Silver of the New York Times noted that only 1 percent of the voters in this year’s Florida primary identified as Jewish, down from 3 percent in 2008.

Despite the heavy emphasis on immigration reform in campaign rhetoric, very few Florida voters called undocumented immigrants their top concern. Romney, who has been somewhat more hawkish than other candidates on the topic of immigration, took a majority of the Latino vote — as well as nearly six of ten Cuban-American voters.

But things haven’t been going quite so well for Romney since his sweeping victory in Florida. He has been heavily criticized for remarks on Wednesday morning that he is "not concerned about the very poor" in a CNN interview. The candidate says he misspoke, but a highly publicized endorsement from Donald Trump on Thursday may not have been the best way to combat the perception that he’s out of touch with economically struggling Americans.

Politics of the pullout

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta surprised many by saying that the United States hopes to end its combat mission in Afghanistan by mid-2013, up to 18 months sooner than expected. The Romney campaign was quick to pounce, with the candidate calling the administration’s plans "naïve" and "misguided."

"Why in the world do you go to the people that you’re fighting with and tell them the date you’re pulling out your troops?" Romney said at a campaign stop in Las Vegas. "It makes absolutely no sense." Perhaps banking on low public support for continuing the war, Obama’s press secretary Jay Carney countered Romney’s criticism, saying troops "will not stay in Afghanistan any longer than is necessary to accomplish that mission."

The GOP front-runner has consistently criticized the administration’s withdrawal plans, though earlier this year Romney himself announced his intention to "bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can."

The Iran factor

This week saw another round of speculation in Washington over whether Israel will attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. According to the Washington Post’s David Ignatius,  Panetta believes there is a strong likelihood Israel will attack Iran this spring or summer, before Iran enters a "zone of immunity" to commence building a nuclear weapon.

Iran is likely to continue to dominate the campaign agenda with Gingrich warning recently that "If Iranians get nuclear weapons, they don’t have to fire a missile. They can just drive a boat into Jacksonville. Drive a boat into New York harbor." Gingrich has said he would launch a U.S. strike on Iran "only as a last recourse, and only as a step towards replacing the regime."

Romney has also argued that "If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if you elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon."

Gates says to tone it down

Robert Gates, who served as secretary of defense to both George W. Bush and Obama, addressed the GOP field in an interview with CNN on Thursday, warning against overheated campaign rhetoric calling Obama weak-willed on Iran.  "You know sometimes things get pretty heated in campaigns, but I think the reality is there is an acknowledgment on people’s part around the world that this president is willing to use military force when our needs require it," he said.

Gates addressed both sides of the debate over Iran, saying, "Those who say we shouldn’t attack, I think, underestimate the consequences of Iran having a nuclear weapon….  And those who say we should, underestimate the consequences of going to war."

What to watch for

Nevada voters will caucus on Saturday with Romney heavily favored to win. Maine will hold its caucuses throughout the week starting on Saturday. Colorado and Minnesota will both hold caucuses on Tuesday. The caucus format could provide an opening for Paul and Santorum, who both tend to inspire more enthusiasm in their (admittedly smaller) base of supporters than the two frontrunners. Paul has been campaigning heavily in Maine since last week.

The latest from FP

Scott Clement looks at why Obama shouldn’t expect voters to flock to the polls to reward him for killing Osama bin Laden.

Michael Cohen says the decision to leave Afghanistan early will prove to be smart politics for the president.

Michael Shifter lays out the Latin America debate the candidates should have had in Florida, instead of just bashing Fidel Castro.

Robert Satloff channels his inner William Safire and explains why presidents should stop describing U.S. support for Israel as "ironclad."

Joseph Sarkisian asks whether a vote for Romney is a vote for war with Iran.

Peter Feaver argues that it’s time for the GOP candidates to stop attacking each other and offer a sharp critique of Obama’s foreign policy.

Josh Rogin reports on Romney’s pledge to defend South Sudan.

Joshua Keating wonders whether Gingrich’s campaign rhetoric will inspire a new generation to read the works of Saul Alinsky.