Romney's South Carolina challenge: Win, and unite a house divided

With his resounding victory in the New Hampshire primary last Tuesday, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney became the first Republican to win both the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary and he is now strongly positioned to win South Carolina presidential primary January 21. No Republican presidential candidate since 1980 who has lost both Iowa and New Hampshire, has won South Carolina.

In fact, since 1980, the winner of the Palmetto State’s primary has gone on to become the eventual GOP nominee in every election cycle.

In a We Ask America poll of likely South Carolina primary voters released last Tuesday, Romney led with 26%. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich came in second with 21%, followed by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum at 13%, Rep. Ron Paul at 8%, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry at 5%, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman last with 4%. In the poll, 22% of the respondents said they were still undecided.

Given these poll numbers from South Carolina, the worst-case scenario for Romney out of New Hampshire would have been a strong second place showing by former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman coupled with either Gingrich or Rick Santorum pulling ahead of the other to get momentum as the anti-Romney alternative as the GOP presidential primary heads below the Mason-Dixon Line. Such an outcome would have strengthened Huntsman, who could have taken votes away from Romney in South Carolina, a state that is, on paper, not the most friendly to him.

Neither scenario happened.

After focusing his whole campaign on New Hampshire, Huntsman finished a disappointing third behind Ron Paul and well behind Romney, who received 40% percent of the vote to Paul’s 23% percent and Huntsman’s 17% percent. And though Huntsman vowed to campaign in South Carolina—he campaigned in Charleston and Columbia last week—the viability of his candidacy and his rationale for staying in the race have now been called into question and doubts will likely intensify in the days ahead.

On the conservative side, Gingrich and Santorum, in a virtual tie for fourth place in New Hampshire, symbolically gave their election night speeches at the same time, crowding out the other, just as they are likely going to do in South Carolina, to the benefit of Romney.

Gingrich, in his election night speech, said South Carolina would be a “daunting challenge,” but asked voters in South Carolina to imagine what the alternative would be, in an obvious reference to Romney.

Nonetheless, Romney is in the lead because voters see him as the most electable candidate, despite concerns of some GOP operatives that he would be to Obama what John Kerry was to George W. Bush in 2004.

Perry 2012 = Thompson 2008

The challenge for an anti-Romney candidate to emerge out of South Carolina, in Gingrich’s words, will be made more daunting by Perry’s candidacy.

Perry, who was campaigning in South Carolina while his rivals were in the Granite State, has the potential to be to Romney what Fred Thompson was to John McCain in 2008—an insurance policy that siphons votes away from the more conservative candidates, making the path to victory clearer for the more moderate candidate.

Perry, whose candidacy is staked on winning South Carolina, saw the jumbled outcome among the non-Romney candidates in New Hampshire as an opportunity to cast himself as the chief anti-Romney rival.

“Tonight’s results in New Hampshire show the race for [the] ‘conservative alternative’ to Mitt Romney remains wide open,” Perry said in a statement. “I believe being the only non-establishment outsider in the race, the proven fiscal and social conservative and proven job creator will win the day in South Carolina.

Further complicating matters for those vying to be the last anti-Romney standing is Paul, whose non-aggression pact with Romney allows Paul to plod along and collect votes and delegates because Paul has a high floor of support, even if his ceiling is not as high as those of the other candidates.

Hammering home his message of preserving liberty, auditing the Federal Reserve, fiscal austerity and pursuing a more non-interventionist foreign policy, Paul, in his New Hampshire election night speech, told his audience that he is leading a movement that is “dangerous to the status quo.”

Ironically, the libertarian movement Paul spearheads may preserve the status quo, at least for this cycle, by making it easier for Romney to get elected.

Paul’s campaign has not attacked Romney so far to not boost any of the other candidates. The Paul campaign wants the race to be between Paul and Romney, and they want to make that scenario, through a process of attrition, happen as fast as possible..

“We urge Ron Paul’s opponents who have been unsuccessfully trying to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney to unite by getting out of the race and uniting behind Paul’s candidacy,” Paul campaign manager Jesse Benton said.

But Paul’s challengers seem unlikely to drop out.

Santorum and Gingrich battle it out

At a campaign event last week in South Carolina, Santorum said that “this is a long process” and the chatter about the race being over was “silly” and he was intent on taking his message beyond South Carolina to Florida and other primary and caucus states.

Santorum is aiming to consolidate the Evangelical voters in Bible-belt areas of South Carolina, such as Greenville, that voted for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008.

Gingrich, on the other hand, well aware that Palmetto State Republicans may vote for Romney because they think he is the best candidate to defeat a President they strongly dislike, made the argument that he was more electable than Romney because he was more conservative.

At a recent campaign stop, Gingrich said that Romney was too ideologically close to Obama to differentiate himself in a debate with him.

“We need a conservative nominee to beat Barack Obama,” Gingrich said. “I don’t believe any moderate can debate Barack Obama successfully.”

Gingrich also said Republicans could not beat Obama if they nominated someone who was moderate, inarticulate, or had no record of achievement, and he was referring Messrs. Romney, Perry, and Paul, respectively.

And while, on paper, South Carolina does not suit Romney’s moderate record and temperament well, he has a base of support on which to build from 2008, when he was in a virtual tie for first with eventual winner and nominee John McCain and Huckabee just a month before South Carolina’s primary.

This time around, Romney is hoping he can win South Carolina like McCain did in 2008 by touting his electability while dividing up the votes of people who are against him.

In his election night speech, Romney went straight to a general election argument, framing himself as the most electable candidate against Obama.

Romney said Obama promised “to bring people together,” “to change the broken system in Washington,” and “to improve our nation,” but has failed to do so.

“Those were the days of lofty promises made by a hopeful candidate,” Romney said. “Today, we are faced with the disappointing record of a failed President. The last three years have held a lot of change, but they haven’t offered much hope.”

Romney added: “The President has run out of ideas. Now, he’s running out of excuses. And tonight, we are asking the good people of South Carolina to join the citizens of New Hampshire and make 2012 the year he runs out of time.”

Romney indicted Obama for wanting to “put free enterprise on trial” and said that, “in the last few days, we have seen some desperate Republicans join forces with him.”

“This is such a mistake for our party and for our nation. This country already has a leader who divides us with the bitter politics of envy. We must offer an alternative vision. Make no mistake, in this campaign, I will offer the American ideals of economic freedom a clear and unapologetic defense.”

Romney said that his campaign is “about more than replacing a President; it is about saving the soul of America. This election is a choice between two very different destinies.”

Romney then contrasted himself with Obama, saying that Obama “wants to fundamentally transform America” while he wants to “restore America to the founding principles that made this country great.”

He said Obama wants “turn America into a European-style entitlement society” while “we want to ensure that we remain a free and prosperous land of opportunity. This President takes his inspiration from the capitals of Europe; we look to the cities and small towns of America. This President puts his faith in government. We put our faith in the American people.”

If Romney’s message resonates and he wins South Carolina, even Gingrich conceded that the race would be over.

“If Romney can win South Carolina, he’s probably going to be the nominee,” Gingrich told NBC News.

But, as Romney conceded in multiple interviews after his New Hampshire victory, South Carolina still remains an “uphill climb” for him.

This story originally appeared in the January 16, 2012 issue of Human Events newspaper.


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