IT MAY pain the political class, but Mitt Romney deserves some credit. He has now accomplished what Reagan, both Bushes, Dole, and McCain all failed to do – win both Iowa and New Hampshire. Romney now finds himself heading to South Carolina searching for an unprecedented hat-trick.
Although surrounded by loyal supporters, Romney’s victory remarks in New Hampshire were really for the Republican base in South Carolina. Small government, low taxes, and a balanced budget, enough red meat to give you a protein rush. It was reminiscent of his 2008 speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, except this time he wasn’t throwing in the towel – he had his opponents on the ropes.
Romney doesn’t emerge entirely unscathed. Curiously it’s the self-identified “Reagan Conservative”, Newt Gingrich, who has led the charge, accusing Romney of “looting” companies during his tenure with Bain Capital. Post-New Hampshire, Gingrich is probably the only candidate with the name recognition and financial muscle for a war of attrition against Romney. Gingrich may be capable of miracles. After all, his attacks against Bain appear to have achieved the impossible: even conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh is defending Romney.
But in an off-the-cuff remark where he claimed to “like being able to fire people”, Romney passed a round of ammo to his opponents. Laying-off workers for restructuring is one thing, getting a kick out of it is another. Never mind that he was referring to consumers’ ability to fire their health insurance company rather than his zeal for handing out pink slips.
Romney still looks strong heading south. Not only do his poll numbers look robust, but a recent Gallup poll found Romney to be the most acceptable Republican nominee among conservatives. Having defied convention by winning back-to-back victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, he will be quite aware that the winner of the South Carolina primary has always gone on to win the nomination. That’s a tradition he will want to maintain. But if politics truly is war without bloodshed, the brutality of Republican battles in South Carolina comes pretty close.
He may have spawned the endorsement of Nikki Haley, South Carolina’s young, photogenic governor, but she is no longer the rising star of 12 months ago; her popularity among Republicans has plummeted. Senator Strom Thurmond helped secure the nomination for Richard Nixon in 1968 and Ronald Reagan in 1980, but Senator Jim DeMint, the state’s current kingmaker and arguably the most powerful man in the Republican Party, has pledged not to endorse a candidate during the primary – despite backing Romney during his last failed presidential run. A late endorsement for another candidate would be cruel, albeit unlikely.
Romney has been labelled many things from “presumptive nominee”, to “most electable,” but never a winner. Nixon once said, “It is necessary for me to establish a winner image. Therefore, I have to beat somebody.” For Romney, a win in South Carolina should do just that.
Ewan Watt is a Washington, DC-based consultant. You can follow him on @ewancwatt