Like Rockefeller in California, Newt Gingrich is well aware that a Mitt Romney victory in South Carolina could end the entire race. He has to go all in. Three victories on the bounce will likely be too much, and Florida and Nevada are up next where Romney will perform well. Michigan, where Romney’s father George was governor for six years, votes later on 28 February. It would be a perfect homecoming. Simply put, Romney has the Republican calendar on his side. But Gingrich has allowed his campaign to descend into what looks like a personal vendetta against Romney, rather than a noble endeavour for the highest office.
Romney now addresses his ripostes to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s what the base wants to hear. Gingrich continues his attacks against Bain Capital, the private equity group Romney founded, but he bats them away by highlighting President Barack Obama’s desire to “put free enterprise on trial.” If Gingrich cites Romney’s privileged upbringing, the former governor laments a president “who divides us with the bitter politics of envy.”
Nevertheless Gingrich’s debate performance on Monday was accomplished. He was on message and avoided some of the harsher rhetoric attacking private equity that had drawn the ire of some conservatives. Is this a lifeline? A similar performance in the debate in Charleston tonight could mark yet another surprising comeback for the former speaker of the House of Representatives. It is, however, a long shot.
Primaries and caucuses are not just about winning, but convincing the media, supporters and donors that you’re still in great shape when you’ve failed to meet expectations. Few were convinced when former governor Jon Huntsman claimed finishing third in New Hampshire justified his “ticket” to South Carolina. Huntsman dropped out on Monday and reticently endorsed Romney. Ed Morrissey of the blog Hot Air summed up the problem with Huntsman’s campaign: he was a conservative from a Republican state who talked like a centrist who disliked conservatives.
Former senator Rick Santorum continues to fight the campaign Gingrich should have run – question Romney’s political principles, not his credentials as a capitalist. His debate performance in Myrtle Beach was his best yet. However, his vote in the Senate against prohibiting closed shop practices could damage him in a state that’s vehemently right-to-work. Congressman Ron Paul will fight through South Carolina. An overall second place finish is crucial for his legacy and the libertarian cause. Another loss may spur governor Rick Perry’s return to Texas.
In these contests, organisation and cash are everything. Although Paul has plenty of cash on hand, his detractors – of which there are many – are as common as his ardent supporters are loyal. Romney and Gingrich are the only two candidates left who can fight out a prolonged Obama-Hillary style battle. However, such internecine conflicts cause lasting damage. It’s questionable whether the party faithful wants this. They’re desperate to prepare for November.
Ewan Watt is a Washington, DC-based consultant. You can follow him on @ewancwatt