MIAMI -- The polls aren't closed but the results are in:
Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney have managed this month to stage the most juvenile, petty, personal and unenlightening presidential contest in modern history, a race akin to (and about as serious as) the back-alley throw down in "Anchorman."
And that's according to other Republicans, even some of the candidates' own advisers and supporters.
"I don't remember it this bad, this personal," said Charlie Black, a veteran GOP operative and Romney adviser who first worked for Jesse Helms in North Carolina in 1972.
Vicious TV ads and mailers are nothing new, said Alex Castellanos, another GOP campaign veteran (and a commentator who is neutral this year.) What’s new, he said, is the candidates themselves trash talking each other in such personal terms.
Among other things, Gingrich has called Romney a "totally dishonest" candidate "trying to buy the election," and a man "willing to mislead, distract and deceive just to win an election." He's even insinuating today that Romney’s religion led him to try to deny hospital and nursing home benefits to Catholics and Jews.
Romney has said that Newt "resigned in disgrace" from Congress and has been "selling influence" on K Street. Mitt is into taunting. "I know the speaker is not really happy," he said. "He's not feeling really excited these days. He's been flailing around a bit, trying to go after me for one thing or another. It's been kind of painfully revealing."
A number of factors have coalesced to drive the GOP campaign into the gutter:
- The candidates claim the same ideological agenda: "There really aren't many differences on issues, which means that it's all about character and who has had a history of being true to what they're now espousing," said Black. “That makes it personal. Everybody is essentially calling everyone else a fraud."
- Mitt's early attack strategy: Romney is indignant about Newt's Florida flailing, but he started it. It was the Mitt Machine that set the tone, in Iowa. First his allies destroyed Rick Perry on immigration; then they turned their attention to Newt, blitzing him with ads saying that he had "more baggage than the airlines."
- Newt unleashes Newt. Decimated in Iowa, Newt came back in South Carolina with a barrage of his own. Still outspent 2-1 (Romney's account to the contrary), Newt called on his deepest instincts: to attack. "Gingrich can tap the fears, resentments and prejudices of voters better than just about anybody," said Roger Stone, another veteran GOP operative. "He's like Nixon."
- Who's toughest to take on the president? The GOP contest is akin to a fight club where the question is, Who can impress the other club members, and in so doing, win the right to represent them in the final contest? So rather than shy away from the nasty stuff, Romney and his aides have gloried in their exploits -- all the better, they think, to impress GOP voters. The Romney crowd is so proud of their counter-counter attack on Newt in Florida (where it has worked well), they bragged about it to The New York Times.
- The "independent" PACs: Rather than leaving the candidates free to elevate the tone and the content of the discourse, the ad barrages from these supposedly independent groups have lowered the overall tenor of the campaign year. It's the political version of the adage about bad money driving out good.
- The debates: Staged as gladiatorial contests, most of them with amped-up audiences, the debates have encouraged the candidates to devour one another with applause-generating sound bites.
Romney's advisers think that, after Florida, the world will forget about the last month. "People are going to stop listening to Newt after a while and then things will calm down a bit," Black predicted.
But it's not all about Newt. And if the past month is any indication –- and it is –- we are at the start of one of the most vituperative presidential election years in modern history.