After successful starts to the primary season in Iowa (even though Rick Santorum was ultimately declared the winner by 34 votes) and New Hampshire, Mitt Romney expected to make it 3-for-3 in South Carolina. That would have just about wrapped it up for the former Massachussetts governor. But after two debates where Romney has seemed listless and hesitant, he could be in for a surprise this Saturday. Romney is having a week from hell.
It started with a boast about creating 100,000 jobs through his work at Bain Capital, which he eventually had to take back. What is surprising here is that Romney allowed himself to be undermined on a claim that was difficult to verify. Then his tax returns became a front-and-centre issue. Romney should have expected that line of attack, but he seemed unable to give a satisfactory answer. Add to it a less-than-stellar performance in the two debates, and Romney is beginning to look like a candidate with a glass jaw.
Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, who is celebrating more comebacks than Sylvestor Stallone’s Rocky, is once again riding a surge borne of his superior debating skills. Gingrich will not win the GOP race, but he is raising doubts about Romney and showing the latter’s vulnerability come November. In Thursday’s debate, Newt showed off his rhetorical skills by successfully brushing off his ex-wife’s claim he had proposed an “open mariage” instead of a divorce. That could have been powerful stuff in socially conservative South Carolina.
Of course, Rick Perry has since withdrawn from the race and endorsed Gingrich. And Rick Santorum has garnered a lot of support in social conservative circles. The effect of all this is that the latest polls show Romney losing momentum and Gingrich gaining it. Romney is now on the defensive and losing ground.
Ultimately, Romney will be difficult to stop. But there is a narrative taking hold in South Carolina, in which Romney is an overly scripted and awkward politician. These are going to be liabilities for him in the showdown with Barack Obama, which explains why the passion and enthusiasm within the Republican rank and file for Romney is lacking. The Obama people have to be happy about events this week in South Carolina.