It’s not news to anyone that for Republicans, this isn’t quite 1980 or 2000, when they could rally around a candidate they genuinely liked and could get excited about (Reagan in 1980, Bush in 2000). It’s more like 1992 (the first Bush) and 2008 (McCain), when they were resigned to a choice that wouldn’t have been their first, and that they perhaps knew in advance would leave them in defeat. That same fatalism is in the air this year when Republicans speak of the election, even local Republican leaders who concede that, in the end, it’ll be Romney-Obama.
Overwhelmingly, they predict a very close election come November, but nothing like a decisive victory against an incumbent that, by most Republican measures, has been somewhere between disastrous and treasonous for the country. With a perceived record like that, any Republican should easily beat him. Or, as Flagler County Sheriff Don Fleming put it, “Mickey Mouse could beat Obama at this point.” But Fleming is in the minority. Judging from a dozen interviews with local Republican leaders, they’re clearly more nervous, less sure of their chances, and underwhelmed by the choices they’ve been left with.
“The more I watch and listen and talk to people,” Andy Dance, the school board member, said of the candidates, “they don’t represent us, it seems. And the farther you get from local elections, local politics, the worse it gets.” Dance is not ideological. He weighs his decisions carefully, genuinely studying issues—or candidates—before declaring himself. He sighed, then laughed, when first asked about his choices in the Florida primary. He would have been a John Huntsman man, but that choice was taken from him. “It’s tough,” he said, conceding that in the end he’d go for Romney. “There’s no perfect candidate. There’s flaws as far as when they get to the general election. As I’m looking at this more and more, I think Romney is probably the best candidate to face Obama. I think there’s less baggage even though he may not for everybody’s requirement as the idea candidate. But I really have issues with Newt,” such as his length of time in Washington. “I’d rather err on the side of the businessman who’s not connected. But, I mean, they’re all bought, with the superpacs, they’re all beholden to somebody.”
“I’m not confident in any of them,” Jay Gardner, the property appraiser who’s himself facing reelection this year, said. “I’m struggling.” Only when pushed does he barely concede that maybe, in the end, he’d give the edge to Romney. But that over the weekend. It could have changed since then.
Not exactly the most rousing endorsements of any candidate, and likely a summation of where many Republicans were as they voted on Tuesday. Out of 11 prominent local Republicans interviewed, five went for Romney, four for Gingrich, and two held out as officially undecided.
Newt Gingrich excites hard core Republicans, but he also makes them edgy for the wrong reasons, his unpredictable declarations a liability easy to exploit, as Mitt Romney has to great effect since the South Carolina primary, as Barack Obama easily would have if Gingrich, as now appears unlikely, could have pulled another victory in Florida. Gail Wadsworth, who heads the local Republican Club, said Flagler Republicans were for Gingrich until recently, but stepped back. Gingrich had even impressed her when she heard him speak at her daughter’s graduation from Georgia Tech some years back. But that was then, and Gingrich’s high time in Flagler was last week. “I think probably I would vote for Mitt today,” Wadsworth said on Saturday.
Romney has never been accused of being exciting. Slick, tidy, disciplined, yes, but also, like the first Bush, slippery: as Massachusetts governor, he devised the health care model that became Obama’s, he was pro-choice before he was against it, he made his accommodations with a high-tax state, and he’s a Mormon, a denomination half of American’s evangelicals don’t consider Christians. Republicans don’t win without a convincing, and convinced, evangelical vote.
Elbert Tucker, the Bunnell City Commission member and a Mormon, gives Romney his due, but he’s a Gingrich man. “Mitt Romney is a good candidate. I must say that,” Tucker said. “However, Newt Gingrich, back when Clinton was the president, he claimed credit for balancing the budget, and really it was Newt who did it. Newt’s credit was given to somebody else for balancing the budget in a four-year span. I’ve read some of Newt’s writings. This has been five, six, seven years ago. As I was reading it, I was saying to myself, this man has a solution for every problem in America, and it’s a real solution. What it amounts to is less government and less control over your lives.” (Tucker conceded one fact early in the Clinton years: In 1993, every Republican in Congress, including Gingrich, voted against the tax increases Clinton pushed through Congress as a founding step toward deficit reduction. The measure passed by a single vote in the Senate and a handful of votes in the House.)
Still, Tucker qualified his decision: “If Mitt is going to be the one to beat, than that’s probably the one I need to vote for,” he said, summing up what also speaks for many Flagler Republicans: his passion is for Gingrich, his pragmatism is for Romney.
Vince Liguori, one of the local tea party’s leaders, doesn’t go for that sort of accommodation. He’d already voted Gingrich when he was interviewed earlier this week, because he considers him best qualified to be president. “There’s no question in my mind,” Liguori said. “The man is brilliant, the man knows the operations of the government, and he knows how to get things done. Romney is going to be similar to Obama. He may know how to create jobs and the business atmosphere, but he donesn’t know Washington.” Yet even Liguori accepts that Romney is best qualified to win, as opposed to being president, a distinction he makes wryly: “If money is the criteria, which it seems to be.”
Liguori is also one of the few who thinks the November victory will be a Republican one, and an overwhelming one.
Tom Lawrence, the chairman of the local tea party, says a stray poll of the membership conducted earlier this month tilted for Gingrich, but Romney was a close second, and Rick Santorum was a distant third. Lawrence was among the those who wouldn’t say which way he’d go (Sue Dickinson, the school board chairman, was the other), and he declined to say how he voted in the poll, though he saw some “problems” in the current Republican field and would have preferred to see New Jersey’s Chris Christie among his choices. Which leaves him conflicted. “I really do not have a strong opinion. That’s unusual for me,” Lawrence said. Except for this: “In my mind, given what happened in this country over the last three years, it is very essential for the health of our republic for a new conservative president to be elected.”
Dickinson wouldn’t give away her vote—she insisted that she didn’t yet know which way she’d go—but she verbalized another common thread among local Republicans: a dismay with the tone of the campaign, and the shredding to which the candidates have subjected each other. “What I don’t like about any campaign is that all of the negative personal, 10 years, 12 years ago past has to be brought up and brought to the forefront,” she said. Particularly when a single winner won’t be the solution. No one person, Dickinson said, can solve the country’s problem. It’ll take the president and a unified Congress.
Charlie Ericksen, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Palm Coast against Jon Netts, said he went for Romney: “I just thought he had the least baggage going along with them, and we need somebody who’s going to work on the details of getting the nation more in line with profitability or just breaking even. We need some more business minds in there.” Ericksen, incidentally, said he would not be running for office this year, though he’d been approached to run against Alan Peterson, the county commissioner.
Peterson was gathering petitions for his reelection near the county government building last week when he was interviewed. Like Dance, Peterson is non-ideological. Like Dance, he was careful to calibrate his answers. “You might consider me biased because I come from Massachusetts,” Peterson said. “I think Gov. Romney has shown, coming from Massachusetts, which is a heavily Democratic state, I think Gov. Romney worked well with the legislators when he was governor. Newt Gingrich is an entertaining debater, but I question his ability to work with people who have ideas that are different than his. And what is desperately needed in my opinion today is the need to work with people who don’t necessarily agree with you, but you need to move forward in a way that benefits the country as a whole.”
Not surprisingly, Peterson is critical of Obama: “He inherited an extremely difficult economic condition that he did not create. The question is whether he has had enough time to reverse the problems. I don’t think he’s come up with a platform or program that would reverse the situation or reverse the economic conditions. I think he sat back and let Congress try to decide it, and I think that’s a mistake. I don’t think he’s led the way he should have led. Between now and November the candidates will lay out positions that the public should decide which is the proper way to go, but it’s taken much, much too long. I blame Congress for bickering, and not coming to a compromise, and I blame the president for not making in my opinion any effort to lead the discussion. Whether someone could do better in the future will be determined between now and November.”
But unlike anyone else interviewed among Republicans, Peterson left open the possibility of voting Obama. The next few months will decide it, he said.
One other person was interviewed: Suzanne Johnston, the tax collector, also in an election this year (though unlikely to face an opponent). She would not give away her choice, though she had already voted. But, sitting next to Gardner, the property appraiser, she ended up doing so anyway. She said she cast her vote for the man who was “Andy Anderson’s favorite person.” Anderson is the late owner of Ace Hardware. He died many years ago—long enough ago, that is, that he would not have known Santorum or Romney, which leaves Ron Paul and Gingrich. Paul was not quite the public figure a decade and a half ago that he is now. You do the tax collector’s math.