MORNING LINE -- December 21, 2011 at 9:33 AM ET
Romney-Gingrich Dead Heat Produces Sharper Attacks
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich speaks during a townhall meeting in Hiawatha, Iowa, on December 19, 2011. Photo by AFP/Getty Images.
There is a sense of deja vu with the Republican presidential race this week, as a third new national poll shows Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney tied for the lead, with Ron Paul running a distant third.
The former House speaker and the former Massachusetts governor each received 20 percent in the latest CBS News survey, followed by the Texas congressman at 10 percent.
None of the other contenders registered above the single digits, with Texas Gov. Rick Perry at 6 percent, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann at 4 percent, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum at 3 percent and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman at 1 percent.
With Romney and Gingrich locked in a dead heat nationally, neither candidate appeared hesitant to engage Tuesday.
Romney accused Gingrich of siding with Democrats in recent debates over climate change legislation and a House Republican plan to reform Medicare.
But, the sharper attack on Gingrich Tuesday came not from Romney, but a so-called "Super PAC" supporting the former Massachusetts governor, named Restore Our Future.
The group released a new television ad blasting Gingrich for having too much political baggage, citing his $1.6 million payment from Freddie Mac, his teaming up with Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for a climate change ad, and his ethics reprimand while House speaker, among other issues.
Campaigning Tuesday in Iowa, Gingrich challenged Romney to publicly condemn the Restore Our Future efforts.
"This PAC was created by his former staff and funded by his personal friends. If he wants to stop it, he can say it publicly," Gingrich said at a stop in Ottumwa, the Washington Post's Amy Gardner reports.
"I don't object to being outspent," Gingrich added. "I object to lies. I object to negative smear campaigns. And I object to things that the candidate himself refuses to support."
In an MSNBC appearance Tuesday, Romney declared that super PACs have "made a mockery of our political campaign season," but he refused to denounce the Restore Our Future efforts, arguing any coordination with the group could put him in violation of campaign finance laws.
That such separation is required under the law gives Romney a bit of cover, enabling him to avoid the potential backlash from voters that might have occurred if the anti-Gingrich spot had his name attached to it.
Even if Gingrich is successful in persuading Republican voters that Romney and the PAC are linked, the damage might already be done, as the former speaker's poll numbers in Iowa have dropped as the attacks from his GOP rivals and their supporters have increased.
The payroll tax cut fight is far from over, and the possibility that it will drag past the Christmas holiday is distinct after the House voted Tuesday to reject a bipartisan Senate compromise on extending the tax cut, as well as an unemployment benefit extension.
House Republicans want the House and Senate to come together in a conference committee to figure out a way forward before the payroll tax cut, which affects 160 million workers, expires in January. President Obama and Democratic Congressional leaders Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi said they won't do that - they want the House to vote on a two-month extension already passed in the Senate.
For now that leaves both parties at a standoff. President Obama on Tuesday called on House Speaker John Boehner to pass the Senate bill from the White House briefing room. Boehner responded by calling on President Obama and the Senate Democrats to negotiate a new version of the payroll tax bill.
"Now, it's up to the president to show real leadership," Boehner said Tuesday. "He said that he won't leave town for the holidays until this bill is done. The next step is clear: I think President Obama needs to call on Senate Democrats to go back into session, move to go to conference, and to sit down and resolve this bill as quickly as possible."
House Speaker John Boehner, told that Obama had sought his help, replied, "I need the president to help out." His voice rose as he said it, and his words were cheered by dozens of Republican lawmakers who have pushed him and the rest of the leadership to pursue a more confrontational strategy with Democrats and the White House in an already contentious year of divided government.
This time, it wasn't a partial government shutdown or even an unprecedented Treasury default that was at stake, but the prospect that payroll taxes would rise on Jan. 1 for 160 million workers and long-term unemployment benefits end for millions of jobless victims of the worst recession since the 1930s.
This is how Todd Zwillich from the Takeaway on WNYC and PRI explained the situation on the NewsHour Tuesday evening:
There are whispers around the Capitol by different people who would like to see a compromise on how the two sides might both save face and move forward, pass something now, guarantee to negotiate later. They're just whispers. Right now, when you ask people straight up, what is the way to shake this loose, they are dug in.
The one good thing about this: it's really not -- even though it seems like it, it's really not the 12th hour. There are two weeks to go before this tax cut expires on New Year's Eve. Yes, it's a drastic inconvenience for members to be here and working between Christmas and New Year's or right up until Christmas, but they can do it.
The refusal of the House Republicans to go along with an agreement that both parties in the Senate, as well as the White House, could agree to has rankled even the Wall Street Journal editorial board. The board made news Wednesday morning with an editorial slamming their usual Republican allies for what it called a "fiasco":
GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell famously said a year ago that his main task in the 112th Congress was to make sure that President Obama would not be re-elected. Given how he and House Speaker John Boehner have handled the payroll tax debate, we wonder if they might end up re-electing the President before the 2012 campaign even begins in earnest.
The GOP leaders have somehow managed the remarkable feat of being blamed for opposing a one-year extension of a tax holiday that they are surely going to pass. This is no easy double play.
Republicans have also achieved the small miracle of letting Mr. Obama position himself as an election-year tax cutter, although he's spent most of his Presidency promoting tax increases and he would hit the economy with one of the largest tax increases ever in 2013. This should be impossible.
House Republicans yesterday voted down the Senate's two-month extension of the two-percentage-point payroll tax holiday to 4.2% from 6.2%. They say the short extension makes no economic sense, but then neither does a one-year extension. No employer is going to hire a worker based on such a small and temporary decrease in employment costs, as this year's tax holiday has demonstrated. The entire exercise is political, but Republicans have thoroughly botched the politics.
Some steam could escape from the political pressure cooker during the holiday break, but this issue won't go away, as President Obama has made this tax cut extension a part of his pro-middle class reelection strategy. Now we will wait to see which side blinks first as time runs out.
JOHNSON DROPS GOP BID
Former New Mexico Gov. Garry Johnson ended his Republican presidential campaign Tuesday, and will instead seek the Libertarian Party's nomination.
Johnson is expected to make the announcement at an event next week in Santa Fe, report Reid Epstein and Ginger Gibson of Politico, which broke the story.
"He is representing a viewpoint and a viewpoint that needs to be heard, and he's going to do whatever it takes to get that done," Johnson spokesman Joe Hunter told Steve Peoples of the Associated Press.
Johnson, who served two terms as New Mexico governor, had been a non-factor in polls of the GOP field, and struggled for attention, appearing in only two candidate debates.
At last September's debate in Orlando, Fla., Johnson had perhaps the line of the night, when he remarked, "My next-door neighbor's two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this current administration."
While Johnson is fiscally conservative, he supports abortion rights and legalizing marijuana, positions that put him at odds with the Republican base.
Even by abandoning his GOP bid, Johnson will still face competition for the Libertarian nomination, which will be decided at the party's convention in Las Vegas next May.
A quick note for our readers: The Morning Line will be taking a few days off for the holidays beginning tomorrow, and returning next Wednesday.
ON THE TRAIL
All events listed in Eastern Time.
President Obama attends meetings at the White House.
Mitt Romney begins his three-day bus tour across New Hampshire, stopping in Keene at 8:30 a.m., Newport at 11:30 a.m., Hanover at 2:10 p.m., and Ashland at 5:50 p.m.
Newt Gingrich receives the endorsement of the Iowa Speaker of the House Kraig Paulsen in Des Moines, Iowa, at 9:30 a.m., picks up the endorsement of New Hampshire Speaker of the House Bill O'Brien in Manchester at 2 p.m., and and attends a campaign fundraiser in Arlington, Va., at 7:30 p.m.
Michele Bachmann continues her 99 county bus tour of Iowa, stopping in Muscatine at 10:30 a.m., Wapello at 11:40 a.m., West Burlington at 12:45 p.m., Fort Madison at 1:35 p.m., Keosauqua at 3:10 p.m., Fairfield at 4 p.m., Mount Pleasant at 5 p.m., Washington at 6:10 p.m., Tipton at 8:20 p.m., and Cedar Rapids at 9:30 p.m.
Ron Paul holds four Iowa town halls -- in Fort Madison at 11 a.m., Mount Pleasant at 1 p.m., Washington at 4 p.m., and Bettendorf at 8 p.m.
Rick Perry campaigns in Iowa, holding events in Muscatine at 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m., and attending a meet-and-greet in Mount Pleasant at 5:15 p.m.
All future events can be found on our Political Calendar:
For more political coverage, visit our politics page.
Sign up here to receive the Morning Line in your inbox every morning.