Politics: Video

Behind the Story: The Sensitivity of Reporting on the Secret Team that Killed Osama

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May 2, 2011, 11:54 a.m.

Sen. Daniel In­ouye (D) is up with a new TV ad, pro­duced by Laird Chris­ti­an­son Ad­vert­ising. Full script, “Dan is Work­ing for Hawaii“:

VARI­OUS PEOPLE: “Dan is work­ing to grow our eco­nomy. Dan is work­ing for our high-tech fu­ture. Dan is work­ing for trans­port­a­tion. Dan is work­ing to pro­mote as­tro­nomy. Dan is work­ing for edu­ca­tion. Dan is work­ing to ex­pand health care. Dan In­ouye is work­ing for Hawaii.” IN­OUYE: “I’m Dan In­ouye, and I ap­proved this mes­sage” (vimeo.com, 10/12).

Want More On This Race? Check out the Hot­line Dash­board for a com­pre­hens­ive run­down of this race, in­clud­ing stor­ies, polls, ads, FEC num­bers, and more!

The post­game pun­ditry out of South Car­o­lina was that former House Speak­er Newt Gin­grich de­feated former Mas­sachu­setts Gov. Mitt Rom­ney hand­ily be­cause voters were look­ing for the most con­ser­vat­ive can­did­ate. But that’s only part of the story.

The big­ger prob­lem for Rom­ney is au­then­ti­city. Des­pite his in­con­sist­ent con­ser­vat­ism, South Car­o­lina voters didn’t dis­like Rom­ney and many thought he was con­ser­vat­ive enough for their tastes. Even the most hardened anti-Rom­ney Re­pub­lic­an voters and act­iv­ists I spoke with said they would work their tails off to sup­port Rom­ney if he is nom­in­ated. Polls showed they were in­clined to sup­port him over Gin­grich as re­cently as sev­er­al days be­fore the Sat­urday primary. And on pa­per, Gin­grich’s con­ser­vat­ive sins — from cri­ti­ciz­ing House Budget Chair­man Paul Ry­an, R-Wis., to ad­vising Fred­die Mac to tap­ing an ad with then-Speak­er Nancy Pelosi, D-Cal­if., — are as well-known as Rom­ney’s vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies and just as dam­aging.

But Re­pub­lic­an voters in South Car­o­lina — and, I ima­gine across the coun­try — are hungry for a can­did­ate who can ar­tic­u­late a proudly con­ser­vat­ive mes­sage and make an ef­fect­ive case against Barack Obama. Gin­grich im­pro­vised a dif­fer­ent stump speech at nearly every cam­paign stop — you nev­er knew what to ex­pect. Like a pro­fess­or, he didn’t dumb down his stump speech to the same sev­er­al, stale talk­ing points. Many voters who at­ten­ded as un­de­cideds fre­quently came away im­pressed with Gin­grich’s depth of know­ledge. This goes against Pres­id­en­tial Cam­paign­ing 101, but it worked for Gin­grich.

Gin­grich may not be like Paul Ry­an or In­di­ana Gov. Mitch Daniels  in style, but he is in sub­stance. In Aiken, his wonky present­a­tion about health care re­form nearly put Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s son Griffin, in at­tend­ance, to sleep. But it wowed the audi­ence, who came away think­ing Gin­grich soun­ded pres­id­en­tial, re­form-ori­ented, and au­then­t­ic.

In his vic­tory speech, Gin­grich talked about left-wing rabble-rouser Saul Al­in­sky, who may not be a house­hold name but is a buzzword with polit­ic­ally-at­tuned con­ser­vat­ive act­iv­ists. He took aim at the me­dia for not scru­tin­iz­ing Obama’s re­cord closely enough — an ar­gu­ment that South Car­o­lina Re­pub­lic­ans fre­quently made. They want someone who will give Obama’s re­cord the same scru­tiny that the me­dia has shown in diving in­to Gin­grich’s past mar­riages and Rom­ney’s tax re­turns. (In­ter­est­ingly, this is an ar­gu­ment Wash­ing­ton Post om­buds­man Patrick Pex­ton, no hard-right con­ser­vat­ive, made in his Sunday column, sug­gest­ing the view is not just lim­ited to the fever swamps of the right.)

By con­trast, Rom­ney’s events were all the same, down to the can­did­ate’s oh-so-sin­cere “Thanks, you guys!” in­tro­duc­tion at every stop. He con­tin­ued to an­not­ate “Amer­ica, the Beau­ti­ful” to demon­strate his pat­ri­ot­ic feel­ings. In his South Car­o­lina con­ces­sion speech, Rom­ney spoke vaguely about the mer­its of free-mar­ket cap­it­al­ism.

That’s mes­sage dis­cip­line, one that strategists crave. Rom­ney’s ca­reer as a busi­ness con­sult­ant, no doubt, makes him very com­fort­able with this style of cam­paign­ing too. But as con­ser­vat­ive colum­nist Mark Steyn wrote Monday in Na­tion­al Re­view: “The finely cal­ib­rated in­of­fens­ive­ness is kind of of­fens­ive.”

Rom­ney ad­visers who are cau­tiously op­tim­ist­ic that their can­did­ate’s or­gan­iz­a­tion­al strengths will over­whelm Gin­grich in Flor­ida should think again. On pa­per, Flor­ida plays to Rom­ney’s strengths — it’s a big me­dia-mar­ket state where grass­roots cam­paign­ing takes a back­seat to tele­vi­sion ad­vert­ising.

But Gin­grich plays bet­ter on tele­vi­sion, at least when he’s on his game. South Car­o­lina voters wer­en’t al­ways look­ing for the most con­ser­vat­ive can­did­ate, but an elect­able one, too. The biggest sur­prise from Sat­urday night wasn’t that Gin­grich won, it was that Rom­ney un­der­per­formed badly in the busi­ness-friendly con­ser­vat­ive pre­cincts around Char­le­ston, Columbia, and even in fast-grow­ing pock­ets of Green­ville, which is as much at the cen­ter of the New South as the buckle of the Bible Belt.

A demo­graph­ic ana­lys­is of elec­tion re­turns from Patch­work Na­tion shows that Gin­grich per­formed nearly as well with the busi­ness-friendly voters as with evan­gel­ic­als. In the counties lis­ted as “boom towns” and “monied sub­urbs” which make up Rom­ney’s demo­graph­ic base, Gin­grich car­ried them with 38 per­cent of the vote. That’s not much lower than Gin­grich’s 41 per­cent in evan­gel­ic­al epi­cen­ters.

These ma­na­geri­al types are con­ser­vat­ive, but also very re­cept­ive to Rom­ney’s free-mar­ket mes­sage. Rom­ney lost much of their sup­port in the cam­paign’s fi­nal days, not win­ning a single con­gres­sion­al dis­trict in the state. Rom­ney’s cam­paign was pre­dict­ing a sol­id floor of about 33 per­cent in the days be­fore the primary; he won just 27.8 per­cent of the vote.

Make no mis­take; this is a warn­ing sign for Rom­ney in Flor­ida and bey­ond. Rom­ney’s ad­visers tried to down­play the scope of the South Car­o­lina loss by not­ing how evan­gel­ic­al and con­ser­vat­ive the elect­or­ate was there. The prob­lem is, Rom­ney also un­der­per­formed against Gin­grich in the ma­na­geri­al-friendly turf that’s sup­posed to be his strong­hold.

The smart money is on Gin­grich im­plod­ing again, un­der the weight of Rom­ney’s mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar ad­vert­ising blitz in Flor­ida that raises all his past bag­gage. But to win, Rom­ney can’t just rely on pul­ver­iz­ing Gin­grich. He will need to ar­tic­u­late a cen­ter-right vis­ion for the coun­try that goes bey­ond plat­it­udes.

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