Mitt Romney’s next major test on his way to the Republican Party’s presidential nomination is the state of South Carolina. Romney leads in the polls there following his clear-cut victory in New Hampshire. But he knows that his more conservative rivals see South Carolina as their best and perhaps last chance to stop him or at least slow him down.
Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum will focus much of their fire over the next week on Romney, and Gingrich and Perry will have some well-funded help that will allow them to run some negative TV ads on Romney in an attempt to weaken his support. The good news for Romney is that he faces several contenders who would like to become the conservative Republican alternative to the ‘Massachusetts moderate’, as Gingrich likes to call Romney.
As long as Gingrich, Perry and Santorum split up the conservative vote in South Carolina, Romney will be in position to win by plurality, much as he did in Iowa. But expect the race to take a nasty turn in advance of the January 21st primary, presenting Romney with perhaps his most crucial test yet in the long road to the nomination.
A History of Nastiness
If the Iowa and New Hampshire contests winnow the field of presidential contenders, it’s South Carolina where the candidates usually face a trial by fire. This is the place where then Texas Governor George W. Bush derailed John McCain’s presidential hopes once and for all back in 2000, and not all of the tactics carried out by Bush supporters complied with the Queensbury rules of gentlemanly behavior.
McCain never forget his rough treatment at the hands of the Bush and it took a few years for them to patch up their differences, just in time for Bush’s re-election push in 2004 when he needed McCain’s help to win back moderate voters. Romney finished well back of the leaders in South Carolina four years ago and he knows if he can pull out a win this time, he’ll take another huge step toward the nomination.
The Bain of Romney’s Existence
In the closing days of the New Hampshire primary battle, Gingrich and Perry started to focus on Romney’s long involvement with the private equity firm, Bain Capital. Romney boasts that Bain’s record of buying, improving and selling companies created more than 100,00 jobs, a figure disputed by some. Gingrich and Perry have focused on those companies that were not so lucky with their Bain experience, companies that folded or went into bankruptcy that resulted in job losses.
The anti-capitalist rhetoric has gotten heated, with Perry referring to the group at one point as “vulture capitalists”, a play on the term “venture capitalists.” Some senior Republicans, including South Carolina’s leading conservative figure, Senator Jim DeMint, are urging Gingrich and Perry to cool it on talk that smacks more of “workers of the world unite!” than the usual mainstream Republican rhetoric about helping companies grow the economy to everyone’s benefit. Democrats are smacking their lips over this. They can’t wait to replay the comments from Gingrich and Perry in the general election, assuming Romney is the nominee, to portray him as some sort of corporate raider without a soul. To be continued, as they say.
Is Ron Paul Running a Campaign or Leading a Movement?
Everywhere you went in New Hampshire, no matter which candidate was holding a rally, you saw people with Ron Paul signs. They are very committed, very devoted, and might wind up being very disappointed if he doesn’t win the nomination, which most of the experts believe is the case.
But listening to his election night speech in New Hampshire, it didn’t sound like your average speech from a second place finisher. Assuming Paul doesn’t win the nomination, the Republicans will have to handle him and his supporters with kid gloves. They need that passion in the coming general campaign against President Obama, that kind of Tea Party-infused passion that few of the other candidates seem to inspire.
I asked several Paul supporters if they would want him to run on a 3rd party ticket in November if he doesn’t win the Republican nomination. They all claimed to have no interest in that. But I just wonder come election time later in 2012, where is that passion for Paul and his message going to go? It’s not easily transferrable to Romney, at least in my opinion.
Lessons From New Hampshire
I can’t tell you how many independent voters I talked to in New Hampshire who said they supported Obama four years ago but now are looking for someone else. These folks are not easy to pigeon hole, either. They worry about the deficit but are turned off by the hard right rhetoric on social issues from candidates like Rick Santorum.
They are clearly disappointed with Obama and his promises, a real worry for the president in a swing, or battleground, state like New Hampshire that will be competitive territory for both parties this year. Likewise, though, I heard from a number of voters up in the Granite State that had no use for Romney.
It seems like to know Romney is not always to love him. Guess they knew him too well and remembered what they regard as his policy flip-flops while governor of neighboring Massachusetts. A number of voters say he strikes them as just another fake politician willing to say or do anything to get elected. These folks were looking for authenticity and that’s why both Paul and, to a lesser degree, Jon Huntsman, played so well in New Hampshire.
The Media Crush
The day before the primary, Paul was to meet voters at a local restaurant outside Manchester, the state’s largest city. Well, you would have thought the pope was on his way. A crush of cameras from all around the world, by the way, not just the United States, were waiting for him. Paul blew in a back door right by me and was immediately overwhelmed by video and still photographers trying to get shots of him with the handful of legitimate voters waiting patiently in the restaurant. Paul’s wife got jostled a bit and then he was out of there, ticked off that the media crush had become a mob scene.
One woman I interviewed was so upset at not being able to see Paul she rushed into the horde of camera people surrounding Paul’s car, demanding to meet him. I was told a Paul aide later whispered in her ear and that seemed to calm her down. Maybe the promise of a future meeting, I don’t know.
Out in the parking lot, Paul was greeted by one of those New Hampshire fringe candidates named Vermin Supreme, a guy who walked around with a bullhorn and a fishing boot on his head who kept announcing to the crowd, “Ron Paul, we have you surrounded! Come out of the car now!” With that, Paul drove away, another of those nutty New Hampshire moments drew to a close.