12/23/2011 03:48 pm ET Updated Dec 23, 2011

The 2012 Speculatron Weekly Roundup For Dec. 23, 2011

We'll be home for Christmas, as the saying goes, but sadly, our heroic 2012ers -- still foraging for votes in the wilds of Iowa -- won't be able to say the same. Back when this whole shebang began, the candidates might have been able to look ahead to this week in December as a time when they could all pause, take a few cleansing breaths, spend a holiday weekend nestled in the bosom of family and Yuletide cheer, and gather a second wind for the New Year. But as the chaos of the primary season calendar shook out in a way that bounced the Iowa Caucus to Jan. 3, there's no sleep till Sioux City.

So it's hardly been an off-week for the GOP presidential hopefuls. Just ask Newt Gingrich, who got to spend a second week listening to the news herald the collapse of his support in Iowa, and the thinning of his national lead over Mitt Romney, which two weeks ago was making headlines and heads spin across the media landscape. Since his ascension, Gingrich has been the target of a full-out assault from establishment GOP types, from the entire staff of the National Review, to syndicated columnist and eminence-grise George Will, who seems to have a bottomless supply of venom to spit in Newt's direction. But in Iowa, Newt's downgrade has most likely come at the hands of his rivals -- most notably Ron Paul and Mitt Romney (and his super PACs!), who have mounted a considerable air war against the former speaker of the House.

Of course, here's where we see the liabilities of having a rickety campaign infrastructure come into play. When Gingrich lost his entire campaign staff to -- well, to his decision to constantly be on vacation -- he brushed it off, bragging about how his campaign was going to be a different model. But it seems that running a social media campaign in virtual reality isn't yet a good enough idea to supplant campaign traditions like having "campaign offices" with "telephones." This week, Gingrich had to stop campaigning in Iowa in order to travel to Virginia -- where he lives -- to get on that state's ballot at the last minute. Meanwhile, the whole world laughed as the NewtGingrich.com domain -- which would normally be seized by a competent campaign -- directed visitors to all sorts of embarrassing locations.

His plan, it seems, for this stage of the contest, was to try to get his rivals to go along with running a positive campaign, free of criticism. Romney and Paul have not obliged him, and now Newt's left to yell about how unfair it is that everyone gets to hide behind their super PACs -- an unusual circumstance for a guy who championed the infamous Citizens United ruling. And for everyone who theorized that the endless debates of 2011 were what was keeping many zombie candidacies on their feet, Gingrich is confirmation. And he seems to know it, too. This is why he badly wanted that Donald Trump debate to go forward on Dec. 27. And it's why he is trying to bait Romney into participating in his continual fetishization of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. "Won't you please agree to come be a part of another televised display of forensics, which are the only hope I have of making up for my lack of campaign infrastructure?" asks the Gingrich campaign.

"Ha, ha, no!" says the Romney campaign, and smartly so. This week, Romney started to take back the mantle of inevitability he'd ceded to the Gingrich surge. And he managed to regain his footing even after chickening out of taking a position on this week's big political debate over the payroll tax cut extension. It wasn't all sunshine for Team Romney however -- another shifting stance, this time on the Iraq War, provided critics with plenty of late-season attack fodder.

Of course, the immediate beneficiary of Gingrich's collapse may be Ron Paul, who is suddenly appearing atop Hawkeye State polls and is now being touted far and wide as the odds-on favorite to prevail in the Iowa caucuses. But it's come at a cost, as a perennial controversy -- his age-old Ron Paul newsletters, for years packed with incendiary, nativist garbage -- have swung back into the newscycle on the strength of a Jonathan Chait column. And Paul, despite having more than three years to develop an answer to this age-old mess, hasn't come up with anything that settles the issue.

Paul and his most ardent supporters continue to insist that it's old news, that Paul has voiced strong support for various civil rights heroes and that his policy portfolio is precisely the sort that enfranchises and supports many historically denigrated constituencies. But they all miss the point by a country mile. The reason curiosity persists over these newsletters is because Paul demonstrates a complete lack of curiosity or interest over how it came to pass that such nonsensical, divisive bilge got disseminated in his name in the first place. He just does not seem to care, and it makes little rational sense. As Dave Weigel notes, he's "blowing it":

But Paul isn't giving an answer on the newsletters that could possibly end the story. He's annoyed about being asked uncomfortable questions? Who cares? News flash: The media doesn't just want to run fun pieces about how great your best ideas are. No one, in any kind of public life, could get away with publishing content under his own name then saying he had no idea who wrote it. He obviously has some idea. Will he have to admit that he's still friends with the people who wrote it? Will he have a story about how he ostracized those people? Either one of those admissions would answer the questions.

Of course, I think Weigel would agree that maybe Paul figures he can skate on this, because there's no sign that any of this controversy is hurting him in Iowa. Though there's no evidence that he'd be damaged by making a chapter and verse explanation of how it came to pass that this content was distributed under his banner, what Paul did -- if anything -- when he found out about it, who -- if anyone -- was taken to the woodshed by Paul over the matter, and what steps -- if any -- Paul has taken or will take in the future to ensure it never happens again.

Meanwhile, in Iowa, the long moribund campaign of Rick Santorum is finally starting to show some momentum. Last week, we wondered why influential Iowa social conservative Bob Vander Plaats hadn't just given Rick Santorum -- the best avatar of the beliefs enshrined in The Family Leader's "Marriage Vow" -- his endorsement a long time ago. It's been obvious for months that Santorum was their guy, and finally, Vander Plaats came around to that realization. Of course, Santorum could have used the endorsement weeks ago. Making matters more complicated are a pair of controversies that have come attached to Vander Plaats' blessing: a report that he bestowed his approval on Santorum in exchange for a monetary supplement, and another report that he'd urged Michele Bachmann (who we're no longer able to pretend is anything more that a 2012 footnote) to quit the race. Vander Plaats denies both charges, but the candidates say otherwise.

And Rick Perry isn't going away either. If Gingrich needs the debates to survive, the lack of debates has allowed Perry to campaign on his own terms, and, combined with all of the volatility on the top tier, it's created a small opening. His campaign seems to understand that this is it, now is the time, and he's being touted as a guy who you might want to get behind if you want to take a gamble. In Iowa, Perry's back to double digits, and is widely seen as the guy who'll benefit if the top tier collapses in a heap of unfulfilled expectations. (He still can't quite escape his tendency to gaffe it up, however: This week, Perry gave a statement on the death of "Kim Jong Two.")

Jon Huntsman is, essentially, the Rick Perry of New Hampshire. He managed to leave a good impression at the last few debates, forsaking the grunge-era jokes for substance, and ably presenting himself as the "adult in the room" -- mirroring the technique that his old boss, President Barack Obama, has taken in Capitol Hill debates. He's suddenly in reach of the top spot in New Hampshire, and depending on how roiled the race gets coming out of Iowa, he may have an opportunity of his own. He's milking all the "Let's give Huntsman a second look" chatter, and is doing to Romney in the Granite State what Romney has done to Gingrich in Iowa -- blast him mercilessly. For his effort, this week Huntsman earned the endorsement of the Concord Monitor.

At the bottom of the rankings, the candidates who have been largely frozen out of the discussion are still making moves of their own. If Ron Paul is reaping the benefits of many years building the foundation for a unique constituency, Buddy Roemer may be doing that now. His hopes of achieving the nomination remain dim, but this experiment of his is roping together a Paul-like movement of disaffected types who might put aside their traditional opposition to create a cross-pollinated movement of Occupy Wall Street types, Tea Party originalists, and good government/campaign reformers who have looked for a hero and found it in Roemer and his "let's start here, let's start now" campaign. If he misses his shot at the nomination this time around, there's a movement for Roemer to lead, if he wants it.

If Roemer is looking to a future allied coalition, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson is opting to retrench and get back to basics. This week, all those hints that he might quit the GOP finally yielded to a decision to join up with the Libertarian Party and run under its banner. Johnson now has new hoops to jump through, and he'll do it with a party that would probably prefer to net Ron Paul as its standardbearer. That would make for an excellent debate, by the way, between Paul -- who's never had to account for the cost of his views as one congressman among many -- and Johnson, who actually had to fuse his philosophies with the requirements of having an executive position in New Mexico.

Fred Karger, like Roemer and Johnson, has no room for error in his all-retail, all-the-time campaign in New Hampshire. And unfortunately for Karger, he made what might be a fatal error this week when he opted to put up a sponsored website making fun of Mormons for, in his words, their "crazy beliefs." Here, Karger gets back to an animating issue -- the Mormon influence over the Prop 8 debate, and his belief that Mitt Romney, as a national leader, could have gotten the Mormon church to stand down from the fight against gay marriage. We've long been amenable to his sunny, positive campaigning -- in a cynical year, it's been a tonic. And we've always been curious as to how Karger's fervent support for the LGBT community might shake up any of the debates in which he's been denied participation. But this latest move is ill-advised, undermines the entire non-divisive spirit of his campaign, and we just can't cotton to it. It's a bad move, and it has not been received well.

Finally, we have President Obama, who is back to having a decent week politically -- his stance in the battle over the payroll tax cut extension led to a week-long media cycle in which the GOP was largely cast as a comical band of infighters. Obama's approval ratings during this time swelled back to the sort of level that makes you a viable candidate again. Now, the only extant question is whether or not voters will remember this week in 11 months' time, when it really counts, and if the economy will continue demonstrating some health.

Normally, this would be the time that we'd be inviting all of you to get into the Speculatron slideshow for even further details, news and analysis, but this week, we've decided to give the heroic editors who tame this beast on a weekly basis the chance to knock off early and get their Christmas celebration started. And we hope you do the same! If we could get you, our readers, anything for Christmas, it would be a switch we could flip so that the 70 percent of you who are dreading the coming campaign season wouldn't dread it so much. As we can't do that, please take our best wishes and our sincere thanks to you for tuning in each Friday.

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