In the Arena

Campaign Countdown: 24 Days Till Iowa

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Well, we are down to it now–down to the most intense month in any presidential campaign, the month before the Iowa and New Hampshire contests. Some would argue the month before the general election is equally intense–sometimes yes, often no: by the time October rolls around, the nominees are familiar characters and the voters usually have made up their minds. For political junkies, though, this is the moment of peak entertainment: a half dozen candidates colliding into each other like bumper cars, and the utter–and rather self-conscious–volatility of the voters in the early primary states.

So, between now and the New Hampshire primary, I’ll be posting every day, holidays included–trying to sense the nano-wrinkles in the zeitgeist, keeping track of mood swings in the campaign, which can be abrupt and violent, especially as we approach the final days.

There’s a debate tonight in Iowa, broadcast by ABC at 9pm Eastern time,which should be huge–the first since the Newt surge began, the first without Herman Cain clotting the stage and also, unfortunately, the first without Jon Huntsman, since he’s not really running in Iowa. This debate is all about one thing: how is Newt going to respond when they come after him?

So far, Gingrich has been serene and presidential. He has vowed that he’s not going to give us, the jackals of the media, the intra-party carnage we so sorely crave. We’ll see. The last few days, Gingrich has been taking direct hits from Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. These have mostly come in the form of TV ads, which is a first in this campaign–and it’s not clear whether a public, inured to making real-time judgments about the candidates in the crucible of these wildly entertaining debates, will respond to political advertising.

To my eye, all these ads are effective. But the two best are Ron Paul’s dismantling of Gingrich on corruption and insiderism, and Rick Perry’s dismantling of both Gingrich and Romney on health insurance. Speaking of Perry, he may be about to experience a slight second coming. He has the money for ads and is about to launch an intense 72-stop, cross-Iowa campaign swing. He also is looking at the very real possibility that Romney and Gingrich will destroy each other in the next few weeks. Of course, as always with Perry, there are daily reminders of his extreme lunkheadedness–today’s example was getting the number of Supreme Court justices wrong in an editorial interview with the Des Moines Register.

This coming week may be the most intense of the campaign. Christmas looms thereafter, and the voters may be too busy assembling their families and living their lives to pay much heed to the candidates. There will be another debate on Thursday in Iowa. But the event I’m most looking forward to is the “Lincoln-Douglas” style debate between Gingrich and Huntsman on Monday in New Hampshire. At the very least, this will be two smart guys going mano-a-mano; and it may be one of Huntsman’s last chances to break through the clutter and make an impact on the race.

Two other developments of note:

John Sununu the Elder, never a very pleasant person, has emerged as Romney’s lead attack dog against Gingrich. He probably isn’t as effective as the former members of Congress, like Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who are expressing concerns about Newt’s, ah, stability.

And Gingrich may have fed those concerns by jumping the shark on Israel, calling the Palestinians an “invented” people and questioning the need for a Palestinian state. This is beyond ridiculous, of course. Whether you call them “Palestinians” or “Arabs” or “former citizens of the Ottoman empire,” the Palestinians were there when the United Nations decided to create the state of Israel. Their desire for a state of their own is no less legitimate than those of the Jordanians, Syrians, Lebanese and Saudis…and the Israelis, all “invented” out of the remains of the Ottoman empire. Gingrich is right that the Palestinians still don’t recognize Israel’s right to exist–an absolute basic requirement, if peace is to be achieved–but he is ridiculous to deny the Palestinians’ right to exist.