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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Supreme court health care day 3 – live” was written by Jim Newell, for guardian.co.uk on Wednesday 28th March 2012 18.45 UTC

2.44pm: And the second session of the day has adjourned – the Most Important Legal Proceeding Since The Trial Of Jesus Christ is over! Let’s see if worrywart Jeffrey Toobin escaped before his head exploded:

Toobin will survive. Again: Toobin will survive. The healthcare reform law though? We’ll have to wait a couple of months before we know about that.

2.31pm: Another thing to keep in mind about the “severability” of the individual mandate: legislators didn’t (forgot to?) include a “severability clause” in the healthcare law, which would have prevented the court from throwing out the whole bill if it found one provision – such as, say, an individual mandate – unconstitutional. That doesn’t mean it is obligated to throw out the whole bill if there’s one one provision it finds unconstitutional, and doing so would be a radical act. But if the whole thing was tossed, Democratic lawmakers would deserve part of the blame for their carelessness.

 

2.16pm: In the afternoon session, Paul Clement tried to argue that the provision for states to expand their Medicaid programs, a part of the bill expected to bring coverage for 15 million low-income Americans and children, unfairly coerces the states. The way the program would work: The federal government would pick up the states’ full tab for new enrollees through 2014, after which it would pick up a mere 90%.

This “coercion” claim is expected to be Clement’s most challenging argument, and as the Wall Street Journal liveblog notes, liberal justices were all over him as this afternoon’s session began. Stephen Breyer, for example:

Justice Stephen Breyer, meanwhile, has been hitting Mr. Clement hard on his most central claim: that the federal government will force states to leave the Medicaid program entirely if they don’t go along with the expansion under the health law. States say that they are afraid that this will destroy their budgets, which rely heavily on Medicaid funds.

Justice Breyer says that that isn’t the case — it’s up to the Health and Human Services Secretary to decide whether to kick them out altogether, and administrative law requires the secretary and other federal government officials to act reasonably, he argues. “Now, does that relieve you of your fear?” he asked.

1.51pm: Meanwhile, on the campaign trail, Rick Santorum just wants to be left alone with his lunch.

 

1.46pm: The court’s audio and transcript (PDF) from this morning’s session are online.

1.29pm: Our correspondent Chris McGreal lined up at 4am to be sure of a seat in court today. Here’s his take:

Wednesday morning’s session boiled down to dueling between the court’s liberal and conservative justices over who should have the authority to decide the fate of the rest of the health care legislation if its core, mandatory medical insurance, is ruled unconstitutional. Justice Scalia was the most aggressive in pressing the idea that it is not up to the supreme court to wade through the remainder of the legislation to decide what should remain and what should not.

He appeared firmly in favour of striking down the whole law if the individual mandate is declared unconstitutional – and gave a clear sign that he thinks it is when he argued that it would be better to throw out the whole law and let Congress begin again.

“Whether we strike it all down or leave some of it in place, the congressional process will never be the same. One way or another, Congress is going to have to reconsider this, and why isn’t it better to have them reconsider it – what – what should I say – in toto, rather than having some things already in the law which you have to eliminate before you can move on to consider everything on balance?” he said.

Some of the more liberal judges were open to the idea that it need not be the end of the health reform law. Justice Sotomayor suggested that if the individual mandate is ruled out, the rest could he allowed to stand while Congress amends the legislation to make it workable.

Justice Kagan said the legislation did not have to be perfect for it to be viable. She said the law was in any case a compromise reached in Congress. “And the question is always, does Congress want half a loaf. Is half a loaf better than no loaf?” she said.

Justice Breyer argued that there are many aspects of the legislation not directly related to the individual mandate. “I would say the Breast Feeding Act, the getting doctors to serve underserved areas, the biosimilar thing and drug regulation… those have nothing to do with the stuff that we’ve been talking about yesterday and the day before, okay? So if you ask me at that level, I would say, sure, they have nothing to do with it, they could stand on their own,” he said.

1.16pm: So the takes following this morning’s session don’t seem as gloomy for the law’s prospects as yesterday, but it was still hardly a walk in the park for the government’s lawyers. The four liberal justices seem intent on preserving the law even without an individual mandate – although, as we gleaned yesterday, they’re also intent on preserving the individual mandate. Justice Scalia, meanwhile, sounds eager to destroy the entire law with a sledgehammer as soon as possible, for various constitutional and political and congressional procedure-based reasons (whatever works, basically.) Justices Roberts and Kennedy simply would like to ask more questions, and perhaps play devil’s advocate on occasion, to mess with our heads.

The key issue is to what degree removing the individual mandate would disrupt interlocking parts of the bill. Scalia best exemplified the absolutist’s take: “My approach would be to say that if you take the heart out of this statute, the statute’s gone.” This neatly echoed the argument of the plaintiff’s lawyer, Paul Clement, who put it, “If the individual mandate is unconstitutional, then the rest of the act cannot stand.”

Perhaps there’s a bit of nuance the absolutists overlook, however? The individual mandate may be the heart of the health insurance finance mechanism in the law – if you require insurers to offer coverage to applicants with pre-existing conditions, then you need a lever for universality that keeps healthier folks in the risk pool to prevent the so-called health insurance “death spiral”, while offering generous government subsidies to further induce them into participation. But if the individual mandate was struck down, wouldn’t this just leave a bad, ineffective public policy in its wake that Congress would have to clear up (some way, somehow?) Some would say that the United States government has plenty of bad public policies in place, but that doesn’t mean they’re the concern of the supreme court.

And even if the mandate/pre-existing conditions/subsidies interlocking complex was excised, much of the rest of the bill – the set-up of state health insurance exchanges, high risk pools, the expansion of Medicaid, and more – could still stand without leading to the collapse of the healthcare market.

Of course, the afternoon session will deal the federal government’s ability to hoist healthcare mandates upon the states, so the conservative justices could simply rule all of the other stuff unconstitutional too.

12.39pm: Just like Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Antonin Scalia seems unusually concerned congressional vote-counting, which – last we checked – is not his job as an arbiter of constitutionality. It sounds like he, and others on his side, might be looking for an excuse to invalidate the whole law as a practical necessity:

12.26pm: The Romney press shop has sent out a notice that former president George HW Bush will endorse Mitt Romney in Houston today, just as he did back in December. Now it is super-official, though, we guess. He now leads his son, former President George W. Bush, 2-0 in total Mitt Romney 2012 presidential endorsements.

12.25pm: Apparently we had some argumentative comedy today, during the president’s alleged train/plane wreck inside the Supreme Court:

Who hit who with the chair or the barbed wire? These Supreme Court justices play too many violent video games.

12.16pm: Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog has an interesting, practical take – that some justices may not be interested in striking down the individual mandate alone because it would be too much of a pain to figure out what to do afterwards:

The Supreme Court spent 91 minutes Wednesday operating on the assumption that it would strike down the key feature of the new health care law, but may have convinced itself in the end not to do that because of just how hard it would be to decide what to do after that. A common reaction, across the bench, was that the Justices themselves did not want the onerous task of going through the remainder of the entire 2,700 pages of the law and deciding what to keep and what to throw out, and most seemed to think that should be left to Congress.

12.08pm: The morning session has adjourned. Here’s CNN/New Yorker legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, giving his latest apocalyptic, sky-is-falling tweet that will terrify Obamacare supporters for the rest of the day whether it has merit or not:

11.59am: The Los Angeles Times has the latest from inside, and its take, at least, is that conservative justices want to tear down the whole law if the individual mandate is invalidated. Oh, they’re feeling frisky today:

The Supreme Court’s conservative justices said Wednesday they are prepared to strike down President Obama’ s health care act entirely.

Picking up where they left off Tuesday, the conservatives said they thought a decision striking down the individual mandate means the whole statute should fall with it.

The court’s conservatives sounded as though they had determined for themselves that the 2,700 page law must be declared unconstitutional.

“One way or another, Congress will have to revisit it in toto,” said Justice Antonin Scalia.

Agreeing, Justice Anthony Kennedy said it would be an “extreme proposition” to allow the various insurance regulations to stand after the mandate was struck down.

11.38am: Longtime Democratic Representative Bobby Rush was kicked off the House floor this morning for donning a hoodie in honor of dead Florida teen Trayvon Martin. Rush supposedly violated chamber rules against wearing hats. Hats!

 

11.31am: The Wall Street Journal live blog, fed by its reporters in the Supreme Court indicates that things are, again, shockingly, breaking down along ideological lines!

Liberal justices are making a strong case for “salvaging” the law even in the event of the individual mandate being ruled unconstitutional; and Chief Justice Roberts – considered, along with Justice Kennedy, one of the two conservative justices who remain open to upholding the law – is exploring another, well, another option:

Chief Justice John Roberts has asked several questions of Mr. Clement that further the case for striking down the whole law, and echo other remarks from Justices Alito and Scalia.

He has suggested that the whole of the health-law should be considered to be linked to the individual mandate because its myriad of other provisions, such as black-lung payments, were actually included as sweeteners to pass the main bill. Without them, Congress “would not have been able to cobble together the votes to get it approved,” he said.

So now Chief Justice John Roberts fancies himself the House Majority Whip, checking out vote counts?

11.14am: Supporters of the health care law – or at least defenders of its constitutionality – dug up all the bitterness they could muster in some sweeping reactions to the liberals’ rough day in court Tuesday.

Slate legal writer Dahlia Lithwick, for example, nearly gave up on modernity, community, and hope altogether:

This morning in America’s highest court, freedom seems to be less about the absence of constraint than about the absence of shared responsibility, community, or real concern for those who don’t want anything so much as healthy children, or to be cared for when they are old. Until today, I couldn’t really understand why this case was framed as a discussion of “liberty.” This case isn’t so much about freedom from government-mandated broccoli or gyms. It’s about freedom from our obligations to one another, freedom from the modern world in which we live. It’s about the freedom to ignore the injured, walk away from those in peril, to never pick up the phone or eat food that’s been inspected. It’s about the freedom to be left alone. And now we know the court is worried about freedom: the freedom to live like it’s 1804.

The New Yorker’s John Cassidy gave up on humanity, calling the case “a bad joke”:

But, of course, this case isn’t ultimately about the law—it is about politics. The four ultra-conservative justices on the court—Alito, Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas—are in the vanguard of a movement to roll back the federal government and undermine its authority to tackle market failures. The movement began in the nineteen-eighties, when the Federalist Society got its start and Ronald Reagan appointed one of its members, Scalia, to the court—and for thirty years it has been gathering strength.

Thus the creation of a new legal theory to sink Obamacare: the idea that while the federal government might well have the authority to regulate economic activity, it doesn’t have the right to regulate inactivity—such as sitting around and refusing to buy health insurance. Now, it is as plain as the spectacles on Antonin Scalia’s nose that opting out of the health-care market is about as realistic as opting out of dying. But necessity is the mother of invention. And, judging by his questions this morning, it is this invention that Kennedy has fastened on.

As I said at the beginning, it’s a bad joke—upon us all.

And Mother Jones’ Adam Serwer poured a few tons of salt into Solicitor General Donald Verrilli’s wounds:

Stepping up to the podium, Verrilli stammered as he began his argument. He coughed, he cleared his throat, he took a drink of water. And that was before he even finished the first part of his argument. Sounding less like a world-class lawyer and more like a teenager giving an oral presentation for the first time, Verrilli delivered a rambling, apprehensive legal defense of liberalism’s biggest domestic accomplishment since the 1960s – and one that may well have doubled as its eulogy.

Reactions on the conservative side, meanwhile, are all more or less in line with that of Senator Ron Johnson, who apparently thought he was watching Braveheart during the hearing:

10.43am: Mitt Romney is now even more deeply engaged in a spat with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, writing at Foreign Policy, “It is not an accident that Mr. Medvedev is now busy attacking me. The Russians clearly prefer to do business with the current incumbent of the White House.” As president, Mitt Romney will… never do business with Russia, or something.

9.57am: If you’re looking to kill a few hundred hours reading something, The New York Times Magazine’s Matt Bai has written an impossibly detailed 10,000-word account of how last year’s debt ceiling negotiations between President Obama and Speaker John Boehner went. (They went poorly.)

9.45am: Good morning. This is Jim Newell in Washington, ready to cover the final day of oral arguments in the Supreme Court health care case, and assorted other political item. There will be two sessions at the court today. At 10am, justices will hear arguments relating to whether the whole health care law should be struck down if the individual mandate is found to be unconstitutional. The second, at 1pm, deals with the health care law’s Medicaid expansion and issues of states’ rights.

While we wait for the excitement to begin, here’s Ryan Devereaux‘s summary of Supreme Court and campaign news today.

President Barack Obama’s signature health care law appears to be in peril, as a number of the Supreme Court’s more conservative judges continue to raise questions about the legislation’s constitutionality. The court’s decision is expected in June. Given the centrality of the Affordable Care Act to the president’s first term, the Supreme Court challenge will undoubtedly impact his efforts at re-election and the arguments of his challengers.

Newt Gingrich has admitted he can’t win the GOP presidential nomination outright and is cutting his staff in order to focus on winning at the Republican convention this summer. Tuesday night Gingrich’s campaign manager announced one third of the former House speaker’s staff would be leaving soon. The Gingrich camp believes neither Mitt Romney nor Rick Santorum will collect enough delegate votes to clinch the nomination. They hope to “take it to Obama” with Gingrich’s “big ideas”, which currently reportedly include a $2.50-a-gallon gasoline and two or three other things.

Mitt Romney appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno Tuesday evening. The Republican frontrunner played a game of word association with Leno and joked about his rival Rick Santorum’s recent struggles with the media, suggesting the former Pennsylvania senator could serve as “press secretary” in a Romney administration. Romney resisted Leno’s attempts to go into detail about who he’d like to enlist as a vice president. He did, however, suggest he would be okay with Santorum filling the role. “I’m happy with him saying he’d like to be part of an administration with me, nothing wrong with that, if he’s the V.P. that’s better,” Romney said. “I’d rather be the president. Let him be the vice president.”

A new poll finds President Obama leading his Republican rivals in three important swing states. According to the latest Quinnipiac survey, Obama beats Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. In Florida, Obama leads Romney 49% to 42%, and Santorum 50% to 37%. Obama has an advantage of 47% to 41% over Romney in Ohio, and beats Santorum 47% to 40%. The race is closer in Pennsylvania, where Obama tops Romney 45% to 42 %, though Romney is well within the margin of error. Obama beats Santorum in home state of Pennsylvania 48% to 41%.

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Supreme court debates ‘Obamacare’ and Republican campaign – live” was written by Jim Newell, for guardian.co.uk on Monday 26th March 2012 16.55 UTC

12.54pm: Day One of the Case of the Century has already concluded, and the chamber is clearing out. Here’s CNN/New Yorker legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin‘s insta-reaction from the press bench:

Jamie Dupree of WBS radio had a bit more to offer, suggesting that there was still plenty of intra-justice sparring during these early, procedural hours:

While the U.S. Supreme Court set aside 90 minutes for argument on the first day of its review of the Obama health reform law, it did not seem like there was an appetite among the Justices to side step the essential question of the constitutionality of the law itself.

Instead, the Justices started skirmishing in advance of what will be the main event on Tuesday, when the Supreme Court takes two hours to review the individual mandate.

Jess Bravin at the Wall Street Journal felt a similar vibe – that the justices seem quite eager to fight this out instead of making an anticlimactic punt:

From what we’ve seen today, most of the justices appeared ready to get to the core of this case now, without waiting until 2014. Overall, the justices didn’t seem receptive to the argument that the Anti-Injunction Act bars a suit until 2014 or after because they didn’t see the insurance-mandate penalty as the kind of tax envisioned by the act.

For further insta-reactions, read any news website. Or stay here all day! You should stay here.

12.31pm: Actor Martin Sheen, who played President Jed Bartlett on The West Wing, has lent his fictional presidential voice to this new ad for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee:

“The same Republicans in Congress who obstructed Mr. Obama every step on the road back,” he says, “now want to end Medicare, eliminate it altogether.” Watch out, Martin Sheen! PolitiFact is going to shake a fist in your direction, any second now.

12.14pm: Today’s hearing at the Supreme court has now finished for the day.

12.10pm: Why can’t the Supreme Court justices simply decided this case with a game of paintball between the liberals and conservatives? You can learn so much from a game of paintball, according to these Western journalists who played with Hezbollah members.

11.56am: Aaaaand here’s the long-awaited video footage of Rick Santorum calling “bullshit” on Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times. Yes, it looks worse on video. Meaning it’s hilarious! He is quite the angry fellow.

 

11.44am: It wasn’t the big name lawyers for either side – profiles here and here – who opened the proceedings, the Wall Street Journal writes:

In a twist, the first lawyer set to stand up before the court Monday morning wasn’t Donald Verrilli or Paul Clement, the powerhouse advocates leading each side. Instead it’s Robert Long, a Covington & Burling partner who is arguing that the case isn’t ripe for adjudication. Long was hired by the Supreme Court to make that argument because both of the litigants – in a rare point of agreement – say the case is ready to be decided.

And the Associated Press reports on what sounds like a very… exciting… opening…

Eight of nine justices fired two dozen questions in less than half hour at Washington attorney Robert Long. He was appointed by the justices to argue that the case has been brought prematurely because a law bars tax disputes from being heard in the courts before the taxes have been paid.

Under the new law, taxpayers who don’t purchase health insurance will have to report that omission on tax returns for 2014 and will pay a penalty along with federal income tax. At issue is whether that penalty is a tax.

The “good stuff” comes tomorrow, when the individual mandate will be up for question-firing.

11.32am: Here’s our latest commentary on the issue, in which Jason Farago argues that Justices Roberts and Kennedy are all too aware of how overturning the PPACA would reflect on the Court’s reputation:

John Roberts surely wants to see the president lose this election as much as any establishment conservative, but it may be the election of 2000, rather than 2012, that really forces the chief justice’s hand. Whether he believes the zany arguments of the act’s opponents have worth is not the central question – because, to be frank, he has more to lose than Barack Obama, if he strikes it down. Obama may get a second chance, but for Roberts, the entire legitimacy of his court is as stake.

I wouldn’t go before a “death panel” to say so, but it seems a safe bet that Roberts and Kennedy will back the administration, if on narrow terms. But in the unlikely event that the justices kill part or all of the Affordable Care Act, it will at least remind us of one unspoken issue in this presidential race: that when we choose a president for four years, we’re also getting supreme court justices for decades more.

 

11.19am: Evan McMorris-Santoro of Talking Points Memo is also outside the Supreme Court, and notes that the atmosphere closely resembles those last days of protests outside the Capitol two years ago when the House was passing the health care law – specifically, tea partiers and liberal supporters shouting past each other with cheap sloganeering:

11.08am: Spotted amid the throngs of activists and angry journalists who couldn’t procure seating to today’s Supreme Court hearing: Rick Santorum, whining (appropriately) about how Mitt Romney basically invented the dreaded legislation being discussed indoors.

10.45am: Rick Santorum is standing by his hurling of a curse word – oh my! – at a New York Times reporter, telling Fox & Friends this morning, “If you haven’t cursed out a New York Times reporter during the course of a campaign, you’re not really a real Republican.” A new public litmus test! Romney? Gingrich? When will you curse out a Timesman in public?

Santorum – like any good Catholic boy – is even turning his vulgarity into a fundraising opportunity, emailing his supporters this morning:

Earlier today, while campaigning in Wisconsin, I criticized Romney and Obama for their outrageous healthcare legislation. Predictably, I was aggressively attacked by a New York Times reporter all too ready to defend the two of them, and all too ready to distort my words. Let me assure you, I didn’t back down, and I didn’t let him bully me. I think it is high time that conservatives find the courage to expose the liberal press for what they are, a defender and enabler of Romney’s and Obama’s liberal agendas.

This will probably reap great rewards.

10.35am: Let’s say there are two ways to evaluate the likelihood of the Supreme Court overturning, or at least mortally wounding, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act: (1) Read every explainer – or really the entirety of every legal blog over the past two years – to arrive at a conclusion based on justices’ previous rulings, overturn rates, or even (god forbid) the case’s merits, or (2) notice that there are five conservatives on the court as opposed to four liberals and just assume they’ll overturn it. The American public, according to The Hill’s latest poll, seem to be thinking more along the lines of (2):

Although voters want the court to strike the law, they don’t necessarily trust the justices’ motivations. Fifty-six percent of likely voters believe the justices are swayed by their own political beliefs, while just 27 percent believe they “make impartial decisions based on their reading of the Constitution.”

Skepticism about the justices relying on their political beliefs ran consistently among age, racial and philosophical categories, with a majority of whites (54 percent), blacks (59 percent), Republicans (56 percent), Democrats (59 percent), conservatives (54 percent), centrists (56 percent) and liberals (59 percent) expressing the same viewpoint.

10.17am: Not that he matters in any way whatsoever, but here is a new ad from Herman Cain in which a bunny is launched from a catapult and then shot in mid-air.

You’ll recall that Herman Cain led a major party’s race for its presidential nomination for several whole weeks last fall.

10.13am: President Obama, as ABC’s Jake Tapper reports, got himself into a bit of hot mic trouble near the end of his 90-minute meeting with Russian president Dmitri Medvedev this morning. Here’s the eerie transcript, in which Obama pleads for “space” on missile defense until his would-be reelection is out of the way:

Obama: On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space.

Medvedev: Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. Space for you…

Obama: This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.

Medvedev: I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.

The White House has responded that with Russia having only recently resolved (in its own special way) its “election,” and the United States still having eight more months until its election that’s already been under way for a year, it’s true that neither side expects to get much done in the near term.

10.00am: Good morning and welcome to your Monday politics liveblog. This is Jim Newell writing from Washington. While you can usually find me at Wonkette these days, I’ll be substituting this week to bring you all the freshest political misery.

Most of today’s focus will be on the Supreme Court health care reform hearing, as Ryan Devereaux writes in our briefing of the morning’s events, but sadly the Supreme Court can’t fit us all as spectators. So we’ll have plenty of time to cover the other stuff – what mean things Rick Santorum said about Obama, or Mitt Romney said about Santorum, and so on, forever.

The main focus of political news comes away from the campaign trail today as 26 states challenge the constitutionality of the Obama administration’s signature health care legislation in the Supreme Court. A new CBS News/New York Times poll finds more Americans continue to disapprove of the president’s federal health care law than support it. According to the poll, 47% of Americans disapprove of the Affordable Care act while 36% approve, 16% don’t have an opinion. The issue has been prominent on the campaign trail: last week the Obama administration decided to embrace the term “Obamacare”, a phrase often used pejoratively by the president’s challengers.

Rick Santorum took a swing at Mitt Romney on Sunday, calling him “the worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama.” Speaking in Wisconsin over the weekend, Santorum added that the former Massachusetts governor was “uniquely disqualified” to serve as the GOP’s presidential candidate. “Pick any other Republican in the country. He is the worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama,” Santorum said. When pressed about his comments by a reporter, Santorum responded with obscenities. “Quit distorting my words. It’s bullshit.” Both the Obama and Romney camps have capitalized on Santorum’s outburst to cast him as a panicky and unhinged candidate in the final days of a failing campaign. It’s also earned him the nickname, “Tantorum”.

A senior White House adviser, David Plouffe, hit back at Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich for their “reprehensible” comments on the Trayvon Martin shooting. On Friday President Obama expressed his sympathy for the Martin family, saying: “If had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” Gingrich said the comments were divisive, and Santorum said the president was “politicizing” the issue. Plouffe said the comments were “reprehensible” and appealing to voters’ “worst instincts”.

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Mississippi and Alabama primary day – US elections live” was written by Richard Adams, for guardian.co.uk on Tuesday 13th March 2012 23.04 UTC

7.04pm: Now time for a quick summary of the action this afternoon. Then Richard Adams will be back for the blow-by-blow of tonight’s contests.

A large number of voters in Mississippi and Alabama rate “electability” or the ability to beat President Obama as the issue most important to them, according to exit polls. That’s a good sign for Mitt Romney. Both states also are seeing high turnouts of evangelical and “very conservative” voters. That’s not such a good sign for Romney.

• Newt Gingrich faces a moment of truth. It will be extremely difficult for the former speaker to continue to speak of a winning strategy involving southern states if he cannot win southern states.

Rick Santorum is hoping for at least one outright win, to combat Romney’s increasingly aggressive argument that Santorum ought to step aside. As of this writing the Intrade market has Santorum the 49-25 favorite to win in Alabama. Stay tuned.

6.20pm: It turns out that, popular perception notwithstanding, Mitt Romney has not been running for president or planning on running for president for what might as well be his whole life. At least by his telling.

6.15pm: A first wave of ABC News exit polls from Mississippi and Alabama seems to hold copious bad news for Mitt Romney – a high evangelical turnout, a high proportion saying it matters that a candidate shares their religion, and a high turnout of “very conservative” voters – until you get to this last datum:

Nonetheless, Romney leads his opponents in perceptions of electability – the sense he’s best able to defeat Barack Obama in November – and that’s the most-desired candidate attribute among voters in both states. Romney pushes back against his ideological and religion-based deficits in another way as well: Voters in both states cite the economy as the top issue in their vote choice, an area in which Romney has done consistently well this cycle.

5.45pm: Santorum wants Gingrich out. Now Romney is on CNN saying Santorum’s finished. If only Gingrich would call on Romney to get out this all would wrap up nicely.

5.41pm: Our first exit poll results now. The turnout of voters who identify as evangelical Christians appears to up in Mississippi and down slightly in Alabama compared with 2008, according to CNN:

The comparable 2008 numbers are 69% in Mississippi and 77% in Alabama.

5.22pm: Inside the Hawaii Caucuses: We wish. Instead we’re covering the race from Manhattan. Here’s what you need to know: It’s the state’s first Republican primary caucus ever. They’re calling it a caucus, at least, but as far as voting process it appears to be more of a primary, with 41 polling stations and a secret ballot.

The money here is on Romney, who has won the backing of the state’s Republican dons. Hawaii will award its 17 delegates proportionally, and then in November it will vote for Barack Obama.

The Hawaii Reporter has video of Elizabeth Santorum in Hawaii making the pitch for her father. Candidate offspring Ronnie Paul and Matt Romney also are reportedly in Hawaii. Which, fine.

4.47pm: Good question Ethan! So readers which is it for you tonight – March Madness or election madness? Or would that be c) None of the above.?

4.41pm: And… Rick Santorum STILL thinks Newt Gingrich should get out of the race. Here’s what he told radio host Glenn Beck this afternoon:

Congressman Gingrich has really shown no ability to get votes outside of the State of Georgia and, you know, those primaries are all over. All the states that border Georgia are now, as of today, will have had their primaries.

Gingrich supporters might point out that Santorum is conveniently forgetting Gingrich’s 40-28 shellacking of Mitt Romney (and Rick Santorum) in South Carolina.

Why is Santorum so eager for Gingrich to exit? Two words: Michigan and Ohio. Santorum lost to Romney by 32,378 votes in Michigan, a race in which Gingrich got 65,016 votes. Santorum lost to Romney by 10,288 votes in Ohio, where 175,554 voters went Gingrich.

4.20pm: A new Moveon.org ad builds on the perception that women voters are turning their backs on the Republican Party. “Judging from their comments, the GOP must have a serious problem with women,” the ad asserts.

Women voters actually gravitated toward Republican candidates in 2010. And that much-talked-about NYT/CBS poll from this morning had one doozie of a number: President Obama’s approval rating tanked among women over the last month, falling 12 points from 53 to 41 percent, according to the poll. A Washington Post/ABC News poll out yesterday reached a substantially different result, however, finding Obama’s approval among women holding steady from a month prior.

(h/t: Taegan Goddard)

4.05pm: Never take candy from a stranger, and don’t believe early afternoon exit polls.

4.00pm: For Democrats hoping to retain control of the Senate, former Sen. Bob Kerrey’s decision to run for his old Nebraska seat is on par with Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe’s decision to retire. (Kerrey, also a former governor of Nebraska, would replace retiring Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson in a state that otherwise likes to vote Republican.)

Now Kerrey’s out with his first ad: “America needs to step up its game.”

 

3.48pm: The Google Politics and Elections team has put together charts tracking searches for the GOP candidates’ names in Alabama and Mississippi. Santorum’s clearly out front in Google searches despite running neck-and-neck in the polls. Strange. Why would “Santorum” attract disproportionate search engine interest?

(h/t: BuzzFeed)

3.32pm: Did you see “Game Change,” the HBO movie based on the book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin about Sarah Palin and the McCain candidacy?

Wonder which narrative from the 2012 race will be turned into a movie.

3.10pm: And now, the fable of Barack Obama, magical petrol fairy. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has attacked President Obama over rising gas prices. The New York Times reports on a campaign stop in Kirkwood, Mo.:

Mr. Romney first offered up some suggestions for why gas prices are skyrocketing, including Mr. Obama’s objection to drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “Maybe it’s related to the fact that you said we couldn’t get a pipeline in from Canada known as Keystone,” he continued. “Those things affect gasoline prices, long term.”

Rising gasoline prices across the country are thought to be a primary cause of the president’s falling approval rating. A Times/CBS News poll out today found that 54 percent of respondents believed that a president can do “a lot” to control gas prices, as opposed to 36 percent who believe they are beyond a president’s control.

Jamie Haber, 39, “an independent voter of Orlando,” told the Times: “I think just being the president of the United States of America, you would have some type of control over gas pricing.”

Let us recklessly spend a moment thinking about this. Is it true? Does the president control gas prices? What would it take for Barack Obama to be able to control gas prices?

He would have to be able to control the price of crude oil, meaning he would have to be able to control the conduct of states like Iran and China as well as the psychology of oil futures traders. He would have to be able to control the capacity and behavior of U.S. oil refiners. He would have to be able to control the marketing and distribution strategies of those fine companies with the big logos that sell gas to station owners. He would have to be able to control station owners and how much markup they tack on to each gallon. He would have to be able to control US drivers and how frequently and far they decide to drive. He would have to be able to control the weather, preventing atmospheric events such as Hurricane Katrina that send crude prices soaring. Alternatively (and least plausibly of all), he would have to be able to control the US Congress, which might be persuaded to pass a Gas for America Subsidy.

A tall order, it seems.

2.50pm: A note on Mississippi:

Exit polls from the 2008 GOP primaries show a slightly smaller proportion of evangelical Christian voters in Mississippi than in Alabama. Sixty-nine percent of GOP primary voters in Mississippi in 2008 identified as Born Again or Evangelical. Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee had withdrawn from the presidential race a week earlier, leaving the field open for Sen. John McCain to romp to a 79 percent win. Ron Paul grabbed 4 percent.

Why tally evangelical voters? As our pollster Harry J Enten first pointed out some time ago, “Mitt Romney’s vote in each state is linear to the percentage of evangelicals that make up each state’s electorate.” Meaning that evangelicals are a good inverse predictor of Romney’s chances.

2.41pm: Some notes on Alabama:

• Rick Santorum may not pick up as many delegates as he might have here because his campaign failed to qualify in four Alabama districts. The campaign similarly botched the Virginia and Michigan qualifying tests.

Exit polls from the 2008 GOP primaries show the influence of evangelical Christian voters in Alabama. Seventy-seven percent of GOP primary voters in that race identified as Born Again and Evangelical. Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee beat eventual nominee John McCain 41-37. Romney grabbed 18 percent of the vote.

By the way: Why is Mitt Romney having such a tough time with evangelical voters? It’s not his Mormonism, according to Michael Tesler:

My analysis of seven surveys conducted by YouGov from late January to early March 2012 … suggests that Romney’s religion is not the main reason why he has not won over these voters. … The answer most likely resides in moral issues like abortion and gay marriage. For, unlike attitudes about Mormons, Evangelical Republicans are much more conservative on these issues than their fellow partisans.

(Tesler h/t: Daily Dish)

2.24pm: So who’s going to win tonight? It depends which poll you believe.

Amy Walter of ABC News observes:

We like this idea a lot. Covering the GOP primaries without having to come into direct contact with the candidates, but instead focusing on the horse race among pollsters.

Here’s a table created by HuffPollster of Alabama and Mississippi polling:

A big disagreement in MS: ARG sees a slim 2-point lead for Romney in Mississippi, while Rasmussen sees a whopping 8-point lead.
A big disagreement in AL: ARG sees a 3-point lead for Gingrich in Alabama, while Rasmussen sees Gingrich-Santorum-Romney all within 2 points of one another.

Ryan Lizza sees potential hidden strength for Santorum and Gingrich:

2.11pm: Titters spread across the Twittersphere awhile ago over a Santorum campaign typo.

2.08pm: Hello there – Tom McCarthy in New York here, pitching in on the live blog this afternoon. Richard Adams will be back this evening as the returns from Alabama and Mississippi (and Hawaii and Samoa) start rolling in.

Some fightin’ words moments ago from Axelrod:

1.45pm: Some good news for Rick Santorum in Alabama: the state’s governor voted for him. The NYT’s Caucus blog reports:

A spokesman for Governor Bentley, Jeremy King, confirmed the vote, saying that Mr Bentley viewed Mr. Santorum “as the most conservative candidate” in the field.

But Mr Bentley chose not to issue a public endorsement or make a statement himself, Mr King said, because “he believes a vote is a personal decision that should be based on a voter’s values and principles, not on someone else’s opinion.”

1.30pm: Rush Limbaugh‘s apology to Sandra Fluke hasn’t gone down well with advertisers or the general public, it would appear.

Rasmussen polls potential voters:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey of Likely Voters shows that only 29% believe Limbaugh’s apology for his recent comments was sincere. Fifty-three percent (53%) do not think his apology was sincere, and another 18% are undecided.

1.10pm: The New York Post wins the battle of the headlines today with its effort “It’s redneck-and-neck” on the southern primaries today, in a piece that includes another bout of Mitt Romney shooting himself in the silver spoon:

While Romney tried to press his down-home credentials, he couldn’t help another bout of embarrassing name-dropping when he was asked about quarterback Peyton Manning during an Alabama radio interview.

“I’ve got a lot of good friends – the owner of the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets – both owners are friends of mine,” Romney said.

The gaffe is similar to when Romney earlier said he didn’t follow Nascar closely but knew team owners.

Does Mitt Romney have any friends who don’t own a Nascar team or NFL franchise? George Bush was an owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team but he managed not to make a big deal of it.

12.45pm: When we get the results tonight from Mississippi and Alabama we may have a better idea of how long and how far the Rwpublican presidential race has got left to run.

But it may yet be a long slog, which is the the mildly depressing calculation made by Sean Trende, the senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He argues that the race so far has been remarkably stable in terms of who has what what:

So we don’t see much evidence of momentum in the primaries thus far. This, of course, could change in the future, and perhaps once Romney passes a certain threshold, it will. Certainly if he were to win Mississippi or Alabama, we would expect it to be a declared a very good night for him. The model suggests that he should pull in about 32% of the three-way vote in Alabama, and about 31% in Mississippi. But with Santorum and Gingrich now splitting the non-Romney vote in the Deep South, Romney might actually pull off the upset in Alabama (assuming the model underestimates him a touch there).

So until Romney shows signs of going on a roll, this thing could run and run.

12.30pm: Will Barack Obama be serving David Cameron wine out of a box? Maybe some cheaper plonk that the White House picked up from Trader Joe’s? We just don’t know, although Bloomberg News tries hard to find out:

The White House declined to comment for this article or to make available Daniel Shanks, the usher who has managed wine selection since the Clinton administration, or social secretary Jeremy Bernard. First Lady Michelle Obama’s office referred questions to the White House press office.

White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest declined to disclose which wines were served at the German or Korean state dinners, identify wines from non-state dinners, make menus of past meals available for inspection or answer questions about the shift in practice.

Earnest also declined to say whether the White House would release the names of wines at the Cameron dinner.

Apparently the White House doesn’t want to be embarrassed about the serving of fancy, expensive wines at state dinners.

12 noon: It’s true: Dick Cheney won’t visit Canada because it is …. too dangerous?

And as is usually the case when Dick Cheney thinks a place is too dangerous – Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan – he gets younger men to go. In this case it is noted Canadian Mark Steyn.

11.55am: This is slightly old but finally an appreciation of the discreet wit of Mitt Romney, via the Atlantic’s excellent Molly Ball:

There are plenty of legitimate reasons to question or distrust Mitt Romney. But the fact that he went to Mississippi and said “y’all” doesn’t make him a phony – it makes him that rare thing in politics, a guy with a sense of humor.

The problem with Romney’s humour, I’d suggest, is in his delivery. A Mitt Romney speech is where jokes go to die.

11.40am: Obama now moves on to the trade case the administration is taking against China over rare earth materials used in electronics manufacturing such as advanced batteries used in hybrid cars and Blackberrys.

“If China would simply let the market work on its own, we would have no objections,” says Obama, outlining the case the US is taking alongside Japan and others through the WTO.

China produces more than 90% of the world’s output of such materials but has recently squeezed exports, hurting manufacturers elsewhere. Last year the price of rare earth materials rose sharply after Chinese traders started stockpiling rare earth reserves.

Chinese exports restrictions are said to force manufacturers to pay double the price of their Chinese competitors for rare earth materials.

The Financial Times reports:

Beijing on Tuesday rejected the claims by the US, EU and Japan, saying China would “continue to implement effective management of rare earths exports in accordance with WTO regulations”. The foreign ministry said China hoped that “other countries with rare earths will also actively develop their rare earths resources to share the burden of global rare earths supply”.

In more pointed comments, Xinhua, the state press agency, said the move was “rash and unfair”, adding that it “may hurt economic relations between the world’s largest and second-largest economies”.

“A better choice for the United States would be sitting down with China face to face and solve the problem through negotiations instead of making it an internationalised issue,” Xinhua said in an opinion piece.

11.35am: Slightly late, President Obama appears in the Rose Garden.

Although the announcement is meant to be about prosecuting a trade case via the World Trade Organisation against China, Obama begins by discussing the recent killings in Afghanistan and vowing to hold a full investigation.

“America takes this as seriously as if it were our own citizens and our own children who were murdered,” Obama says, in reference to the 16 Afghan civilians killed in a shooting spree by a US soldier on Sunday.

11.04am: What are the Republican voters of Alabama thinking before today’s primary in the Yellowhammer State? Film-maker Kat Keene Hogue travels to Alabama to ask them, the latest in our Primary Voices series.

10.45am: One event that really was taking place was to be Newt Gingrich‘s visit to the Birmingham Zoo in Alabama. But it has been cancelled. (Apparently the animals objected because they didn’t want to be cast in a bad light.)

10.25am: Here’s a brief timeline of events* that are happening today.

11.10am: President Obama declares war on China. Trade war, that is. Well, officially the president “delivers a statement announcing ‘new efforts to enforce our trade rights with China and level the playing field for America’s businesses and workers’.”

11.11am: Mitt Romney denounces whatever President Obama does regarding trade with China as inadequate.

11.50am: Mitt Romney meets voters in Missouri, which holds caucuses on Saturday. At 11.56am Romney will say something silly about eating a regional speciality and mis-pronounce the name of the city as “St Louie”.

12.45pm: Newt Gingrich addresses the Vestavia Hills Chamber of Commerce. in Birmingham, Alabama. No one cares.

6.30pm: President Obama and British premier David Cameron attend a NCAA basketball game in Dayton, Ohio.

6.39pm: President Obama suddenly realises that David Cameron has never watched a basketball game before and is sick of explaining what a three pointer is.

8pm: Polls close in Alabama and Mississippi.

10pm: Both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum gracefully withdraw from the GOP primaries and endorse Mitt Romney in a stirring call for party unity. Romney appears and hugs both men, saying “I love you guys.” Then, a unicorn appears on stage.

*Note: events listed here may not match reality as currently understood.

10am: Well here’s some good news. Despite some rumbling to the contrary, it appears there will not be yet another Republican presidential debate next week.

I think I speak on behalf of a grateful nation and possibly the GOP when I say: awesome.

The Oregonian reports that Mitt Romney has turned down his invitation to the debate scheduled for next Monday – hardly a surprise but likely to be the death knell for any hopes of recycling some Portlandia jokes.

9.30am: Another Tuesday, another set of primaries, and this time the focus is on the Deep South – Mississippi and Alabama, to be precise – where Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are running neck-and-neck in the polls.

Polls are open in both states and will close tonight at 7pm EST – when we will be live blogging the results. Much later are caucuses in Hawaii and American Samoa but because of the time differences we’ll be covering them tomorrow.

Here’s all you need to know from our reporter Ryan Devereaux:

• Mitt Romney is hoping to clinch the nomination with wins in Mississippi and Alabama, where primary voters are heading to the polls today. Accomplishing the goal is easier said than done, however, as the candidates are locked in an exceedingly tight race. While Romney is regularly viewed as the candidate with the greatest potential to beat President Obama, the former Massachusetts governor has had a difficult time winning the hearts of southern conservatives. He is challenged by Rick Santorum, who is locked in a struggle to appear as socially conservative as possible, and Newt Gingrich, who was born in Georgia and has focused nearly all of his campaign energy on the region.

• Today’s contests come as new polls show President Obama’s approval rating has dropped substantially. According to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, 41% of respondents approve of the job the president is doing, while 47% disapprove. The latest figures come just one month after the president managed a critical 50% approval rating. Rising gas prices, escalating tensions regarding war with Iran and major security setbacks in Afghanistan are believed to have contributed to the president’s sudden drop in popularity.

• Meanwhile, a new poll from Public Policy Polling adds a whole new dimension to the question of how some Americans view the president. According to PPP, 45% of Republican respondents in Alabama think President Obama is a Muslim, while in Mississippi that number is 52%. In Alabama, 60% of respondents don’t believe in evolution, and in Mississippi 66% don’t. It turns out Rick Santorum is the most popular candidate among evolution-deniers, while Newt Gingrich has the majority of the support from those who believe interracial marriage should be illegal.

• In his never-ending quest to seem like a regular guy, Mitt Romney toured Alabama with Southern comedian Jeff Foxworthy. Famous for his “You might be a redneck if …” jokes, Foxworthy tried to help Romney make light of himself. At one point on Monday, Romney quipped that he hoped to set out with an Alabama friend who “can actually show me which end of the rifle to point.” Ever his own worst enemy in efforts to seem normal, however, Romney managed to tell a radio show host that “good friends” of his own NFL teams. Last month the former governor caught flak for saying some of his friends own Nascar teams.

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Alabama and Mississippi primary results – live” was written by Richard Adams, for guardian.co.uk on Tuesday 13th March 2012 23.00 UTC

7pm: Welcome to our live coverage of the Republican presidential primaries in Alabama and Mississippi, in which three men are struggling to see who will come out on top. The polls suggest any one of Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich has a chance of winning either or both of the Deep South contests – and who wins what will determine the length of the GOP nomination race.

Polls close in both states at 8pm EST so it could be a mercifully short night compared to the marathons in Iowa and Ohio that the campaigns have had to endure so far this year.

We’ll be following the run-up to the count and then the results and reactions, so stayed tuned.

One thing we won’t be getting tonight is a speech from the Republican front-runner Mitt Romney, who is likely to be in the air when the results come in. That suggests his campaign is braced for bad news – especially as Romney spent the day campaigning in Missouri, which holds its vote on Saturday.

But don’t worry: Rick Santorum will speak to supporters in Lafayette, Louisiana, where he has been campaigning ahead of that state’s primary on 24 March, and Newt Gingrich is to address his fans in Birmingham, Alabama.

Given the two races and the range of outcomes, here’s a preview of how things may shake out when the votes have been counted:

• Romney wins both Alabama and Mississippi: that could suddenly increase the pressure on Santorum and Gingrich to end their campaigns, since it would kill off their argument that Romney fails to appeal to Southern Republicans. In any case it would be a big boost for Romney and probably all but end the contest, to the relief of many in the GOP and media.

• Split decision: a Romney win in one and a loss to either Gingrich or Santorum in the other would be a blessing for the frontrunner but would probably fail to settle the matter – and the long slog towards winning the delegate majority would continue. Similarly, a brace of second places by Mitt with Santorum and Gingrich taking one state apiece

• Clean sweep by Santorum: the worst possible outcome for Romney, since it may force Gingrich out of the race, ending the handy divide and conquer routine that has helped him to date and making Santorum the unchallenged “Anyone-but-Mitt” candidate.

• Clean sweep by Gingrich: a bloody nose for Santorum may actually help Romney, since Gingrich is a weaker national candidate and far less appealing to Romney’s Achilles heel alliance of evangelicals and conservatives.

In all these scenarios the size of the vote share is also important: narrow losses of a few percentage points by Romney and a bag of delegates wouldn’t cause him any panic. But deep, double-digit losses and third-place showings could knock his campaign off its march towards the nomination.

So there we have it: four (or five) potential scenarios. Now all we have to do is wait for the voters of Alabama and Mississippi to finish voting.

In the meantime, a themed joke from a three-year-old:

Q: How can you spell Mississippi with only one i?

A: Close one of your eyes. (It works better out loud.)

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “GOP nomination fight goes on to Mississippi and Alabama – live” was written by Richard Adams, for guardian.co.uk on Monday 12th March 2012 21.20 UTC

4.48pm: Sigh. Depressing news that far too many Republicans in Alabama and Mississippi think that Barack Obama is a Muslim:

The poll of Mississippi Republicans found that 52% said they believe Obama is a Muslim, 36% weren’t sure and only 12% said they believe he is a Christian. He fared slightly better in Alabama, where 45% said he is a Muslim, 41% weren’t sure, and 14% said he is a Christian.

4.33pm: Mitt Romney can’t even get it straight whether or not he likes catfish. In South Carolina he’s not that into catfish. But in Alabama this week, catfish is “delicious”.

Oh and Rick Santorum uses a teleprompter.

Maybe this is the first post-modern presidential primary, where there is no connection between what candidates say and what they do?

4.04pm: Not content with banning teleprompters, Rick Santorum is now just making stuff up:

In response to the obvious reply of “Ha ha ha ha, seriously, what has Rick Santorum ever been commander in chief of exactly?” the Santorum campaign says Santorum was “referring specifically to his service on the Senate Armed Services Committee”.

Ah, that was quick.

3.49pm: It’s that Mormon business again – in answer to a question on Fox News earlier today, Alabama governor Robert Bentley said Mitt Romney‘s religion remains a “problem”:

I think that’s a very subtle issue that probably – may be a problem in many states, not just in Alabama. But I do believe that Republicans are looking to see who can win the presidency and they’re going to look at that more than anything else.

Bentley says he thinks Romney will win the Alabama primary, although he hasn’t endorsed him.

3.18pm: A brief glimpse inside the happy home life of the Romney family, via the Washington Post and a long and – let’s be honest – deeply tedious article about Ann Romney’s interest in equestrian sports:

The best gift her husband ever gave her was a horse, Ann Romney told the New York Times late last year. Her son Josh told another New York Times reporter in 2007 that he had given his dad a rubber horse mask so that if he wore it, “maybe Mom will pay as much attention to you as she does to the horses.”

That is the highlight. The rest of the article is basically just cut and paste from a lawsuit in which Ann Romney gave testimony.

You may be thinking, “really, who cares?” and you’d be right. Tye bad news is there is more fodder for Gail Collins’s equally tedious obsession with that story about Mitt Romney strapping the family dog to the roof of the car:

In one harrowing episode, [Ann Romney] recalled, Marco Polo, the other German horse, was in a container that tipped on an airport runway during transit.

2.56pm: Buzzfeed Politics has some figures on TV ad spending in Alabama and Mississippi. Surprise, surprise, Mitt Romney and his campaign have spent about $2.5m, while Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have spent about $1.3m combined.

2.19pm: The 2012 Republican primaries have been the season of the Super Pac attack ad – and the Guardian’s Ana Marie Cox rounds up some of the harshest ads of the last few months.

An ad’s effectiveness is rated on a 1 to 5 “Horton Scale”, so named after the devastating “Willie Horton” ad implemented against Michael Dukakis in 1988. An ad with a “5” rating is, of course, the highest and has the potential to fatally wound a candidacy. An ad at the other end of the scale – “1” – has the effectiveness of the 2010 ad by California GOP Senate candidate Carly Fiorina against rival primary rival Tom Campbell, known as the “Demon Sheep ad”: hilarious, potentially viral, dubious impact.

2pm: Mitt Romney is still working on that connecting with the voters down South thing, as AP reports:

As is often the case, Romney showed an engaging side and stiffness, at almost the same time. When the rain-soaked crowd sang “Happy Birthday,” Romney exclaimed: “That’s a fine Alabama good morning,” as if such greetings are somehow different in other states.

Moments later, he showed good-natured self-awareness, saying he hoped to go hunting with an Alabama friend who “can actually show me which end of the rifle to point.”

No word whether the trees of Alabama were the right height.

1.41pm: Finally, a GOP presidential contender takes a brave stance on the real issues of this election: teleprompters.

No seriously, Rick Santorum really did say this on Sunday, in public, in Gulfport, Mississippi:

See, I always believed that when you run for president of the United States, it should be illegal to read off a teleprompter. Because all you’re doing is reading someone else’s words to people.

You know, when you’re running for president, people should know not what someone’s writing for you after they’ve had pollsters and speech writers test it.

You know who used teleprompters? Ronald Reagan.

But according to Rick: “You’re choosing a leader. A leader isn’t just about what’s written on a piece of paper.”

But what if the candidate writes their own words? Shouldn’t it be speechwriters who are banned? But we risk taking this at all seriously, when it is obviously mad.

1.20pm: Lucky Puerto Rico: the island nation is going to have visits from Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum soon, ahead of the caucuses there on 18 March:

The former Pennsylvania senator will arrive in Puerto Rico on Wednesday and will meet with Governor Luis Fortuño at La Fortaleza. After a press conference, Santorum will visit the Veterans Hospital in Río Piedras.

Santorum and the governor worked together in Congress when Fortuño served as resident commissioner and are friends. Still, the governor has endorsed the presidential bid by Mitt Romney, the front-runner who is also scheduled to stump in Puerto Rico this week.

1pm: Mitt Romney is doing pretty well in the Deep South, according to new polls of Alabama and Mississippi today from ARG, which has done a good job forecasting this election cycle so far:

• Alabama: Newt Gingrich leads with 34%, followed by Mitt Romney with 31%, Rick Santorum with 24%, and Ron Paul with 6%

• Mississippi: Mitt Romney leads with 34%, followed by Newt Gingrich with 32%, Rick Santorum with 22% and Ron Paul with 8%

ARG finds lower levels of support for Rick Santorum in both states than the earlier PPP polls out today, which suggests a different likely-voter model.

On ARG’s Mississippi result, an earlier survey by the same firm conducted on 7-8 March found Gingrich was leading Romney 35% to 31%. That’s some change in four days, but within the margins of error.

ARG finds that in Alabama, Romney is winning the most support from Democrats and independents: “Among self-identified independents and Democrats, Romney leads with 33%, followed by Santorum with 28%, Gingrich with 17%, and Paul with 15%.”

12.27pm: So the delegate math says that Mitt Romney is the inevitable nominee? That may be so but people such as Rick Santorum aren’t dissuaded by things like “math” or “science” or “fact” – these are people who deny climate change and evolution, so what would you expect?

But this new argument from Santorum’s campaign is the “least-convincing campaign strategy memo ever,” according to Jonathan Bernstein in the Washington Post:

Santorum strategist John Yob argues that Santorum will win … by seeding the convention with stealth delegates who will switch to Santorum after the first convention ballot is cast, and they are no longer bound. This is, to be blunt, nonsense.

Yes but that’s from what the Bush administration once called “the reality-based community,” and so should be disregarded.

12.07pm: Sad news! To help his supporters celebrate Mitt Romney’s birthday, the Romney campaign wanted them to use the #hbdmitt hashtag. Over three days only about 17 did.

11.24am: To celebrate Mitt Romney‘s birthday today, here’s Steve Benen in the New York Daily News:

The party that nominated self-described “maverick” John McCain and swaggering George W Bush – and that reveres Ronald Reagan for his clarity and fortitude – looks set in 2012 to choose someone who never met a constituency he was prepared to offend.

11.01am: I’d like to start the latest “Mike Bloomberg for Treasury Secretary” rumour, on the back of this New York Times piece on a low-key lunch meeting between President Obama and the New York City mayor:

Over a long private lunch at the White House, President Obama posed a question to Mayor Michael R Bloomberg: what are you interested in doing next?

Mr Bloomberg’s precise response is unknown. But their meeting a few weeks ago, confirmed by aides to both leaders and previously undisclosed, was potentially significant for both men, as Mr Obama seeks support for his presidential campaign and Mr Bloomberg ponders his post-mayoral career.

And then Mike Bloomberg can run as a Democrat for the 2016 presidential nomination.

10.39am: I think we now know why Rick Santorum decided to run for the Republican nomination: to improve his Google ranking.

Prior to the 2012 primary season, as you may recall, the top Google.com search result for Santorum was the result of a Dan Savage prank, defining Santorum as “frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter”. Now, though, thanks to all the news stories about Santorum’s nomination bid. that site has slipped way down the Google results front page and is not far off dropping onto the second page (which no one ever reads in Google searches).

All he has to worry about now is the Wikipedia page “Campaign for ‘santorum’ neologism” which still comes in second.

10.15am: It looks like Mississippi and Alabama are going down to the wire, based on a brace of polls by PPP released early this morning.

• Alabama: A virtual three-way tie with Mitt Romney at 31%, Newt Gingrich at 30% and 29% for Rick Santorum, with Ron Paul way back with 8%.

• Mississippi: Newt Gingrich holds a slim lead with 33% to 31% for Romney, 27% for Santorum, and just 7% for Ron Paul.

So any combination of results is possible, from Mitt Romney winning both – and perhaps ending the GOP race right there – to Romney coming third in both contests behind Santorum and Gingrich, which would ensure it continues for some time to come.

Here’s PPP’s analysis of why Romney is competitive, despite Gingrich and Santorum both being more popular than Romney in each states:

The reason Romney has a chance to win despite being less popular in both states is the split in the conservative vote. In Mississippi 44% of voters describe themselves as ‘very conservative’ and Romney’s getting only 26% with them. But he’s still in the mix because Gingrich leads Santorum only 35-32 with them. In Alabama where 45% of voters identify as ‘very conservative,’ Romney’s at just 24%. But again he remains competitive overall because his opponents are so tightly packed with those voters, with Santorum at 37% and Gingrich at 31%.

It’s not really clear who, if anyone, has the momentum in these states. In Mississippi folks who’ve decided in the last few days go for Gingrich over Santorum 37-29 with Romney at only 15%. But in Alabama the late deciders go 38-29 for Romney over Santorum with Gingrich at 23%.

10am: It’s the final day of campaigning in the Southern states of Mississippi and Alabama, the latest set of must-win primaries between GOP contenders Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.

With the polls showing a tight race between the three, after a weekend that saw wins for Romney and Santorum, we’ll be following the candidates and their campaigns live.

Here’s a summary of the latest events from Ryan Devereaux:

• The GOP’s presidential hopefuls are working to secure southern voters ahead of tomorrow’s primaries in Mississippi and Alabama. Depending on how they play out, the contests could narrow the field or lead to more weeks of inter-party fighting. National polls have the leading candidates in a virtual dead heat, suggesting tomorrow come down to the wire.

• Over the weekend, Santorum continued his efforts to urge Newt Gingrich to drop out of the race. On Sunday, Santorum said a one-on-one race between himself and Romney would need to “occur sooner rather than later”. The day before Santorum decisively won the Kansas caucuses. For his part, Gingrich has remained defiant but losing tomorrow’s contests could spell the end for the former house speaker’s campaign. Meanwhile, if Mitt Romney manages to come out on top tomorrow it could effectively seal the nomination for the former Massachusetts governor.

• Romney is reported to be looking to Illinois to make his stand against Santorum, in the event that he can’t seal the deal tomorrow. Taking the midwestern state, however, may prove difficult for the Romney campaign. A new Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll finds little space between the two candidates. According to the survey Romney has the support of 35% of likely voters, while Santroum has 31%, well within the 4% margin for error.

• Despite the muddled appearance of the race for the Republican nomination, Santorum has predicted that he will be the victor if the party remains undecided by the time the Republican national convention rolls around this summer. Despite trailing Romney by more than 200 delegates, Santorum told NBC’s Today Show this morning: “We’re going to be the nominee. Governor Romney will not make it.”

• A new ABC News/Washington post poll finds a steep decline in support for the war in Afghanistan, even among Republicans, which could change the landscape of the battle for president. According to the poll, 60% of Americans do not feel the war efforts have been been worth their immense costs in blood and treasure, nearly double those who feel the opposite. For the first time in five years, Republicans are evenly divided on whether the war has been worth it. As reports surfaced of a US army sergeant massacring over a dozen Afghan civilians–including numerous women and children–over the weekend, Newt Gingrich expressed a surprisingly critical analysis of the war. Appearing on Fox News Sunday, Gingrich said, “I think it’s very likely that we have lost, tragically lost, the lives and suffered injuries to a considerable number of young Americans on a mission that we’re going to discover is not doable.”

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