Romney has much to gain from a deal with Ron Paul

Paul could aid Romney's attempt to win over sceptical conservatives.

We have now entered the stage of the presidential election season in which reporters are getting bored. They have started playing a game called Find the Gaffe.

Here's how you play: When a candidate speaks publicly, pay attention to every sentence, phrase and clause that could be used against him by the opposing campaign.

For instance: Last week, President Barack Obama was explaining why the unemployment rate ticked up to 8.2 per cent in May, thus raising fears that the recovery is stalling and talk of a dip into another recession. His conclusion was that the public sector has seen significant job loss while the private sector has shown incremental gains. "The private sector is doing fine," he said.

Blammo!

"Are you kidding?" said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. The private sector is not doing fine. "Did he see the job numbers that came out last week?"

Mitt Romney rejected the idea increasing the size of government by creating more public-sector jobs:

"He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It's time for us to cut back on government and help the American people."

Fire the beloved firemen! Blammo!

"I would suggest [Romney]'s living on a different planet if he thinks that's a prescription for a stronger economy," said David Axelrod, the president's senior political adviser.

And on it goes. It's enough to make you forget there are other people, other candidates, involved in the election.

You don't hear much about third parties inside or outside the US, but they exist. They are tiny compared to Republicans and Democrats yet they can be game-changers by pulling votes from one of the other candidates. The Green Party's Ralph Nader is perhaps the most famous example. In 2000, he peeled enough Florida votes from Al Gore to give George W. Bush the win.

Gary Johnson is another. He's the former Republican governor of New Mexico and current nominee for the Libertarian Party. He couldn't gain entry into an over-stuffed roster of GOP candidates, because, well, except for fiscal matters, Johnson isn't much of a Republican: He's pro-pot, pro-gay marriage, pro-choice. He supports the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement. But! He does want to slash the federal government's annual budget by $1 trillion. For this and (hopefully) other reasons, the Libertarian Party tapped him last month.

When it was clear he wasn't going anywhere as a Republican, Johnson launched a bid for the Libertarian Party's nomination. That meant notifying the Secretary of State of each state in the union that he'd no longer pursue the GOP's nomination. In Michigan, he missed the deadline for withdrawal by three minutes, thus violating a law that bars candidates who lose primaries from switching parties so they can run in the general election.

As of now, Johnson won't appear on the ballot. That's why the Libertarian Party of Michigan is poised to file a lawsuit next week alleging that Republicans in Michigan are reading the law too narrowly (three minutes!) in order to keep Johnson off that state's presidential ballot. The reason, they say, is that Romney fears a libertarian candidate will siphon off votes in a swing state where the margin of victory is likely to be slim. They might be right.

***

Meanwhile, another libertarian has set off a firestorm by endorsing the candidacy of Mitt Romney. That would be US Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, the son of Ron Paul. The endorsement came on Fox News when Rand Paul called for greater "kinship between our families." That was kinda weird but kinda weirder was that Rand's announcement occurred while Dad Paul was technically still running for president. The Revolution was not pleased.

But unlike Obama's saying the private sector is doing fine and unlike Romney's saying the American people want fewer firefighters, Rand's endorsement wasn't a gaffe.

Ron Paul has a history of breaking from GOP ranks when he believes the party is going in the wrong direction. He did it in 1988 when he ran on the Libertarian Party ticket (as Johnson is now) against the Republican Party's Anointed One, George H.W. Bush. This time, it's an inside fight where Paul has captured gads of delegates in caucus states even though he didn't come close to winning the popular vote in those states. With the delegates, Paul hopes to influence the party from its libertarian flank, though no one is sure how he plans to do that. More certain is that Paul has much to bargain with and Rand's endorsement may be a signal that Dad is ready to deal.

Romney, for his part, stands to gain a lot from an association with Paul. For one thing, Romney continues to struggle with conservatives. He can't sway independent voters without getting hammered by conservatives sceptical of his bona fides. No one, however, doubts Paul's conservatism. For another, Romney does not inspire voters, even Republicans. Paul, on the contrary, has built a voracious following.

Time will tell, of course, and the national convention is still a long way off. Meanwhile, it's good reminder that sometimes a gaffe is just a gaffe, except when it isn't.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign rally in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photograph: Getty Images.

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.