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The Election 2012 Trail Mix Awards

I started covering the 2012 campaign for the New Republic in late August, 2011, when I stepped on a plane to Houston to report a piece on Rick Perry. Having done nothing else for the next 14-plus months, it seems only proper to offer a retrospective of sorts now that we’ve reached the end of the road. I already had the chance to vent a bit on the experience for another magazine. But it also seemed worth offering some accolades for the characters and moments that made 2012 a memorably strange campaign. Envelopes, please...

1. Best foreign policy disquisition: Herman Cain. Yesterday, I recalled the glorious moment when Rick Perry declared that Turkey, our staunch ally, is run by “Islamic terrorists.” But for sustained delight that could not match Herman Cain’s response when asked by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board whether he supported President Obama’s handling of the uprising in Libya. As the New York Times recapped it:

Mr. Cain leaned back and appeared to search for an answer: “O.K., Libya,” he said. “President Obama supported the uprising, correct?” he said. “President Obama called for the removal of Qaddafi — just want to make sure we’re talking about the same thing before I say ‘Yes, I agree,’ or ‘No, I didn’t agree.’” Mr. Cain said he disagreed with the president’s approach “for the following reasons” — then changed course. “Nope, that’s a different one,” he said. “I’ve got to go back and see.” He added: “I’ve got all this stuff twirling around in my head.”

Later, I got in touch with Journal Sentinal reporter Craig Gilbert, who was at the interview and with Cain for the rest of the day. Gilbert told me: “At a certain point I asked Cain what he thought about the reaction to his comments, and not in a testy way, he said, ‘this crazy system, the crazy media,’ and then in a tone of amusement he talked about the absurdity of people ‘making a big deal not just of my phrases but also of my pauses,’ and a suggestion with a smile that maybe he should be flattered by that, that even his pauses were worth dissecting.”

2. Best Mullah Omar impersonation: Rick Santorum. It is remarkable to think that a campaign that ended with voters approving referenda to legalize marijuana and same-sex marriage also included a long stretch where a serious contender for one party’s nomination offered riffs such as this one, which I witnessed in a sports bar in Marshalltown, Iowa a few days before Rick Santorum won the state’s caucuses:

What comes with freedom? Freedom and responsibility. Freedom isn’t a right to write whatever the heck you want, to perform whatever actions you want. There are some, even some unfortunately in our party, some who are running for president, who believe that freedom is to do whatever you want to do. Just, you know, freedom is use drugs, participate in anything you want, as long as you aren’t hurting anyone directly...We cannot last long as a country with people living lives that aren’t responsible....Happiness today is enjoyment, pleasure, what makes you feel good, that’s what makes you happy. At the time of our founders, one of the principal definitions was the freedom to do the morally right thing...rights given us by God to serve him in our lives, that’s the moral foundation of America.

Something tells me Santorum won’t be invited to any Seattle parties anytime soon.

3. Most forgiving voter: Essie Phillips. As Newt Gingrich stormed to a win in the South Carolina primary, many of us covering the race wondered how it was that he was getting a pass from conservative Bible Belt voters for his well-known personal transgressions. My favorite answer came from Essie Phillips, a 72-year-old woman retired from an auto parts plant in Greenville:

“He’s asked the Lord to forgive him and if the Lord can forgive him, so can I,” said Phillips. She said she had seen a lot of Newt appearing on Fox News the past few years and he “seems to stand steady on what he believes. He doesn’t hesitate. He’s the only who can beat Obama in a debate; he doesn’t have to think about what he says.”

Still, I couldn’t help but press her, a well-dressed, proper older woman: was she saying that she really wasn’t bothered by Newt’s personal history, or worried what voters would make of it? I mean, really: Three marriages? She stared at me. I’m a widow now, she said, “but it took me three times to get it right, too.”

4. Best tweet by an ex-candidate: @NewtGingrich: Terrific visit to Phoenix zoo. Great conservation program. Fascinating special treatment for Komodo dragon. Beautiful place for families. (Oct. 18.)

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5. Strangest show of filial devotion: Mitt Romney. Romney has made no secret of the fact that he was running for president partly in memory of his father George, whose run for the Republican nomination in 1968 fell short. He scribbled “Dad” on the notepad at every debate, and spoke often of his father, “a guy who made Ramblers,” as he told voters in Council Bluffs, Iowa in January. But there were other ways in which he sharply diverged from his father’s legacy. He refused to release more than two years of tax returns where his father had released 12. And he took a rather different approach to civil rights matters. His dad stormed out of the 1964 GOP convention over its refusal to adopt a civil rights plank, led a march in Detroit in solidarity with Martin Luther King Jr.’s marches down South, and declared on a visit to North Carolina, “As far as I’m concerned, states have no rights. Only people have rights.” Whereas Mitt Romney delivered a deliberately provocative speech to the NAACP and, after being predictably booed there, told guests at a Montana fundraiser that same night that the NAACP attendees were the sort of people who just want “free stuff” from the government. Meanwhile, I watched as he smiled broadly at a rally in Greenville, South Carolina when Gov. Nikki Haley declared that Romney would let South Carolina implement its stringent new voter ID law, which the Justice Department challenged as racially discriminatory. “President Romney [will say] that’s our right!” Haley said.

6. Best surreptitious grooming rumor: Mitt Romney and Rick Perry (tie). Romney raised many eyebrows when he appeared at a Univision forum in October with his face tinted a noticeable bronze shade. Soon afterward, Buzzfeed cited a knowledgeable anoymous source with the obvious explanation: spray-tanning. But Romney may not have been alone with such masculine vanity in this year’s field of candidates. As I reported in that Perry profile last fall, Perry also raised some eyebrows in his first years as a state legislator: “That Perry had his eye on bigger things was confirmed for some of his colleagues when he showed up in his second term with a full set of corrective braces, which had the end result of enhancing his good looks. ‘Everybody who noticed his braces suspected that [it was a career move], but no one confirmed it,’ says Steve Carriker, then a Democratic senator from West Texas.”

7. Best fake accent: Josh Mandel. There’s a time-honored tradition of candidates dropping g’s when it suits the audience, but my favorite instance of it this year was Mandel, the exceedingly youthful challenger to Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, speaking to coal miners in southeastern Ohio in an odd Appalachian/Southern hybrid that seemed awfully funny coming from a nice Jewish boy from the Cleveland suburbs. The dialect really kicks in around the 1:50 mark, before the big rhetorical climax: “These people who are out of touch with Ohio, Barack Obama and Sherrod Brown, have waged a war on coal. They think coal is a four letter word. I tell you this afternoon, for any of these folks trying to between us and affordable, reliable, dependable energy, we have four words for them: over! our! dead! bodies!”

8. Best pundit tweet: ‏@howardfineman: It’s not scientific or quantifiable by Nate Silver but Des Moines Register endorsement of Mitt first time it’s clear O may lose the race.

9. Best spousal tag team: Sherrod Brown and Connie Schultz. On Election Night, I watched at the Columbus Hilton as Brown took the stage to deliver a rip-roaring speech in celebration of his victory over Mandel (and more than $30 million in spending by outside groups.) What followed was quite a spectacle. Brown’s voice, raspy on a good day, grew so hoarse that he simply could not make his garrulous populism heard. Which led his wife, the former Cleveland Plain Dealer columist Connie Schultz, to step in and take over. The background lent the moment extra significance: Schultz, who won a Pulitzer for her work, left her job a year ago to spare her and Brown a whole new round of questions about her partiality as a columnist. But now she was free to speak up for him. The auto industry riff at the 7:20 mark is particularly worth watching.

10. Most devious bipartisan overture: Barack Obama. For the final month or two of the campaign, Obama found himself being questioned by pundits for a seeming lack of fire and desire following his low-energy convention speech and positively lethargic performance at the first debate. Some asked: Did he event want to be reelected? Meanwhile, as soon as he won reelection, a new question arose: would he have any more luck building bridges to congressional Republicans in the next four years than he did in the last four? Well, he apparently decided he would kill both these birds with one stone. Visiting his campaign headquarters in Chicago to thank his team there, the famously cool and aloof Obama mustered some tears. Clearly, a deliberate attempt to make people think that he actually, you know, wanted to be president for another term -- and to create a bond with the lachrymose Republican he’ll be dealing with most for the next few years.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis