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South Carolina Showdown: Romney Taking Control

And then there were five. It took a few days for former Utah governor Jon Huntsman to realize that his weak third place finish in the New Hampshire primary behind Ron Paul and Mitt Romney spelled the doom of his moderate GOP presidential candidacy. But then Huntsman finally came to his political senses and dropped out of the race.

The reduced field includes former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and Texas Governor Rick Perry. It leaves Republican voters in South Carolina with a much clearer set of choices, and conservative activists with another opportunity to coalesce around a single candidate who will be their last chance to stop Romney’s growing momentum.

For Romney, the victory in Iowa, a conservative Republican state, was a pleasant and unexpected surprise, even though it was by the narrowest of margins. His victory last week in New Hampshire was even sweeter. It had been the site of his crucial defeat at the hands of Senator John McCain in 2008. He returned four years later to improve on the margin of McCain’s victory, and earned McCain’s endorsement in time for the primary in South Carolina.

 

More to the point, Romney managed to stay on message, while responding without rancor to the criticisms of his opponents in both Iowa and New Hampshire.

 

After his strong win in New Hampshire, Romney appears to be sitting on his lead, hoping to run out the clock on his GOP opponents, none of whom has succeeded in gaining much traction. That approach became evident in the Monday night debate in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Romney concentrated on fending off the attacks of his opponents on his record and turning his fire on Obama rather than allowing himself to get into a serious head-to-head confrontation with other Republicans.

 

MISLEADING CHARGES AGAINST ROMNEY’S COMPANY

 

He once again patiently explained his record in the private sector as the head of venture capital company Bain Capital, and complained that some of the attacks of his GOP opponents on that record were either inaccurate or misleading. Media fact checkers quickly confirmed Romney’s complaints that the pro-Gingrich, video, entitled “King of Bain, grossly distorted Romney’s record at Bain Capital. It blamed him for actions taken after he left the company, or presented the facts in a selective and highly misleading manner.

 

For example, Bain Capital bought UniMac, a Florida commercial washing machine manufacturer in 1998. In 1999, Romney left Bain to run the 2000 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. Bain did not sell UniMac to the Canadian company that closed down the factory until 2005.

 

The video also blamed Romney for the failure of the KB Toys chain, which Bain did not buy until a year after Romney left the company.

 

Finally, the video suggests that Romney and Bain were involved in a Lehman Brothers stock scandal involving a technology company named DDi which went bankrupt. But in fact, and SEC investigation into the case found no wrongdoing by Bain, which also lost money when the company declared bankruptcy after the dot com bubble burst. However, DDi later emerged from bankruptcy and is currently thriving.

 

Romney briefly dueled with Gingrich over which of them had SuperPACs running attack ads that were more inaccurate. Romney got the better of that exchange, remarking that the bogus claims about his record at Blain Capital in the pro-Gingrich ad were “probably the biggest hoax since Bigfoot.”

 

THE VALUE OF WORK

 

Gingrich’s best moment was in an exchange with Fox News commentator Juan Williams, who began by telling Gingrich, “you recently said black Americans should demand jobs, not food stamps. You also said poor kids lack a strong work ethic and proposed having them work as janitors in their schools. Can’t you see that this is viewed, at a minimum, as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to black Americans? [The crowd booed.]

 

Gingrich answered, “No. I don’t see that. My daughter, Jackie, reminded me that her first job was at a church in Carrollton, Georgia, doing janitorial work at age 13. And she liked earning the money. She liked learning that if you worked, you got paid. She liked being in charge of her own money, and she thought it was a good start. . .

 

“I’ve had over 50 people write me about the jobs they got at 11, 12, 13 years of age. Ran into a young man who started a doughnut company at age 11. He’s now 16. He has several restaurants that take his doughnuts. His father is thrilled that he’s 16 because he can now deliver his own doughnuts.

 

“[Time Magazine columnist] Joe Klein reminded me that this started with an article he wrote 20 years ago. New York City pays their janitors an absurd amount of money because of the union. You could take one janitor and hire 30-some kids to work in the school for the price of one janitor, and those 30 kids would be a lot less likely to drop out. . . They’d learn to show up for work. They could do light janitorial duty. . . They’d be getting money, which is a good thing if you’re poor. Only the elites despise earning money.” [The crowd erupted in applause.]

 

THE RIGHT WAY TO HELP THE POOR

 

Williams followed up by asking Gingrich if he knew that his comment calling Obama “the food stamp president sounds as if he intended to belittle the poor and racial minorities. [The crowd booed again.]

 

The former House Speaker responded by noting that, “the fact is more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history. I know that among the politically correct, you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable. . .

 

“So here’s my point. I believe every American of every background has been endowed by their creator with the right to pursue happiness. And if that makes liberals unhappy, I’m going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job and learn some day to own the job.”

 

The exchange earned Gingrich a standing ovation from the audience.

 

THE TWO SIDES OF NEWT

 

But there were low points for Gingrich in the debate as well, times. He seemed to be nit-picking or mean-spirited, the “bad Newt” whose excesses forced him to resign as House Speaker after leading the GOP to defeat in the 1998 mid-term election.

 

Conservatives still trying to prevent Romney from wrapping up the GOP nomination are effectively down to a choice between Santorum and Gingrich, even though both have glaring flaws as candidates in the general election.

 

The debate was a reminder that when Gingrich is on his game, he can be one of the most brilliant and thought-provoking political thinkers in the country. But it also showed how he can veer off at any moment into self-destructive diatribes and mean-spirited comments that turn off most voters.

 

Romney cannot match Gingrich’s brilliance and debating skills, but the former House Speaker also has a fatal flaw, a mean streak combined with a lack of self control which turns him into a political time bomb likely to explode at any time, blowing up his own ability to get elected.

 

The venomous attacks based on false and misleading information in the video being run by the pro-Gingrich SuperPAC against Romney’s business record have reinforced the fears and objections raised by Gingrich’s longtime foes when he first entered the race.

 

PAUL VS. SANTORUM

 

Santorum’s weaknesses were highlighted during the debate in a curious exchange with Ron Paul. When Paul was asked whether he thought that the practice of running attack ads against fellow Republicans should be discontinued, Ron Paul said he though that such ads were “quite proper” as long as they are accurate.

 

Then Paul said that the problem with the 1 minute ad he used against Santorum was that it was too short, “I couldn’t get all the [negative] things in I wanted to say in one minute.” He went on to tick off a long list of problems he has with Santorum’s voting record while he was in the Senate.

 

To his credit, Santorum has run a respectable and honest campaign, bet everything on winning the Iowa caucuses, and almost accomplished it. In the closest finish in the history of the Iowa caucuses, Santorum lost to Romney by 8 votes.

 

That earned him sufficient support to come in virtually tied for fourth place with Gingrich in the New Hampshire primary. He remains viable going into South Carolina, which is another state, like Iowa, where the Republican primary is dominated by social conservatives who theoretically would be receptive to Santorum. Beyond Iowa and South Carolina, Santorum appeal is to a very limited audience. His agenda is not one on which any GOP presidential candidate can win this November.

 

SANTORUM’S STRENGTH IS ALSO HIS WEAKNESS

 

Santorum presents himself as an ideologically committed a social conservative. He has little or no appeal to independent voters. This was demonstrated by his failure to win re-election to the Senate in 2006. He lost that race to moderate Democrat Bob Casey by a 59-41% margin, or over 700,000 votes, the largest loss for an incumbent Republican senator in history.

 

As things look now, the economy will be the primary issue in the election as it was in 1992, when Bill Clinton famously won the White House by running on the slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid!”

 

ALL ABOUT SOCIAL AND MORAL ISSUES

 

But the economy is not what the political fire in Rick Santorum’s belly is all about. His candidacy is all about social and moral issues. He makes no apology for trying to incorporate his Catholic religious beliefs into public policy on issues ranging from family values and the right to life to the teaching of the theory of evolution in public schools. He rejects the global warming theory as “junk science” and a liberal conspiracy to expand the control of government over the life of private citizens.

 

He is also what many would call “a compassionate conservative,” supporting aid to poverty stricken people and vulnerable children in third world countries and the US, medical research and community health centers.

 

On foreign policy and national security issues, Santorum is even more supportive of Israel than Gingrich. For example, Santorum believes that Israel has a legal right to the West Bank as the spoils of the Six Day War in 1967.

 

However, his record as a fiscal conservative is spotty. While in the Senate, he supported the Bush tax cuts, a balanced budget amendment, and supported the curbing of some entitlement programs. He broke with the conservative agenda by supporting federal programs for education and transportation. He also made extensive use of earmarks for politically beneficial projects in his home state, and supported the addition to the Medicare prescription drug benefit without designating a way to pay for it.

 

Even worse, Santorum cannot lay claim to any special economic expertise to lead the country back to prosperity.

 

ROMNEY STAYS LARGELY ABOVE THE FRAY

 

Romney refused to get into a mudslinging contest with his fellow Republicans when they attacked him, or to engage in bidding war with them over how much to lower the federal income tax rate.

 

Romney said that all his financial information is already public knowledge, and that he will release his personal income tax returns in April, like President Bush did. However, none of the questions meant to bait Romney succeeded in forcing him into a making serious mistake.

 

At a number of points, Romney appeared to be on the defensive, especially when the issue was obscure, such as whether convicted felons should be allowed to vote after completing their prison sentences.

 

In the end, he achieved his purpose. He emerged from the debate with his presumptive front runner status still intact, and positioned to sew up the GOP nomination if he can score wins in South Carolina this week and in Florida on January 31.

 

ADDRESSING THE NATIONAL AUDIENCE

 

Romney continued to give the impression that the ones he wanted to address the most in Monday’s debate were not the Republicans of South Carolina but rather millions of others across the country trying to make up their minds about whom to vote for in November.

 

That was the same audience that Romney targeted when the polls closed in New Hampshire last week. Speaking in prime time, he chastised President Obama, but was careful not to try to demonize him.

 

He attempted to identify with Americans who are looking for a leader who can fix the economy and unite the country, fulfilling the promises that Obama made four years ago but failed to keep. Romney then adapted Obama’s 2008 hope campaign theme to serve his own: “We still believe,” Romney said. “We still believe.”

 

The next day, Romney looked to the Florida primary with his first Spanish-language TV ad. Spanish speaking Cuban Americans comprise a major segment of the Republican base in South Florida. As narrated by Romney’s Spanish-speaking son, Craig, the title of the ad was “Nosotros,” or “Us,” and the message was: In Mitt Romney’s America, anything is possible.

 

Then he went back to responding to the charges of his GOP opponents seeking to portray him as a “vulture capitalist,” Romney has continued to answer calmly while trying to project a steady and reassuring warmth in the context of his handsome family, including his wife, their five sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren, and earnest declarations of support for classic American democratic and free market principles.

 

CONVINCING THE CONSERVATIVE DOUBTERS

 

In addition to winning the primaries and dispensing with his GOP opponents, he also still needs to convince conservative doubters in his party that he is their best and only hope of ridding the country of Obama. Based on his improving numbers in the latest polls, he seems to be making steady progress on both scores.

 

Republicans are beginning to accept the fact that despite his perceived political liabilities, including allegations of flip-flops on social issues, misinformation about the Massachusetts health care plan and his Mormon faith, Romney has proven himself to be their most viable candidate. He simply has a better chance to beat Obama in November than any of the remaining Republican choices.

 

PAUL AND PERRY ARE NOT VIABLE CANDIDATES

 

Ron Paul is not an option. Even though he is a fiscal conservative, that is just about the only thing that he holds in common with the party. His radical views, his disregard for national security and opposition to US support for Israel are so out of touch with mainstream voters as to disqualify him from serious consideration.

 

Similar, Rick Perry’s early debate gaffes have so tarnished his credibility that even his much better recent debate and campaign performances cannot repair the self-inflicted damage. Republican voters, especially those who supported him early, no longer take his candidacy seriously, and there is no way that he can overcome that.

 

A GROWING INEVITABILITY

 

For these reasons, it is beginning to look like Romney is the inevitable GOP presidential candidate that he has been promoted to be since the race began.

 

Huntsman was never a popular candidate, but he hung on, hoping to pick up Romney’s moderate supporters were he to stumble. However, after Romney cruised to victory in New Hampshire and continued to run a virtually error-free campaign, Huntsman realized that it was hopeless and dropped out of the race on Monday.

 

With the center of the party and its establishment leaders in his pocket, Romney is now in a position to be patient. He can allow his remaining opponents to attack him all they want without responding in kind. Romney can be confident that they will eventually make the kinds of mistakes which will undermine their credibility, and convince those Republicans still on the fence that he is their best choice for challenging Obama in November, regardless of their lingering doubts about him.

 

BREAKING THROUGH THE 30% BARRIER

 

The signs of that process unfolding were apparent in New Hampshire, where his level of support finally broke through the 30% barrier and almost reached 40%. It is also apparent in the national polls, where Romney’s approval rating among Republicans has also broken out of its long plateau, and is climbing towards consensus levels.

 

Romney does not have the nomination in his pocket yet, but he is definitely closer to that goal than he was before the New Hampshire primary. After South Carolina, his field of opponents will likely be reduced further, setting up Florida on January 31 as a possible end point for this stage of the campaign.

 

CHAMPION OF FREE MARKET CAPITALISM

 

Ironically, Romney’s most recent challenge, defending his record at Bain Capital as the head of a successful private investment fund, is likely to be very valuable for the general election. Obama and the Democrats have already started with the class warfare rhetoric, trying to paint Romney as the enemy of working Americans, and a rich member of the 1% which unfairly exploits the other 99%.

 

Obama and the Democrats are sure to adopt some of the criticisms of Romney in the video that the Gingrich supporters have been airing in South Carolina. It depicts Romney as a greedy Wall Street raider who traveled the country slashing jobs, pocketing millions and prioritizing profits over workers.

 

However, to the extent that Romney can use the primary campaigns in South Carolina and Florida to craft effective responses to those accusations, it will make him a much more effective candidate against Obama in the general election.

 

So far, Romney has been responding to the Bain attacks by correcting the specific distortions and inaccuracies, and then making a forceful argument in praise of free market capitalism and, from a larger perspective, the American free market system as a whole. In essence, Romney is presenting himself as the premier defender of free enterprise and free markets, positioning himself to counterattack Obama in the fall as the enemy of those classic American values.

 

PROJECTING A MORE PERSONAL PORTRAIT

 

At the same time, Romney’s campaign has tried to convey to the voters a more personal portrait of the candidate with whom they can identify. The question goes beyond Romney’s record at Bain Capital, and his ability as a successful business to restore American prosperity. The campaign also wants voters to see him as a caring family man with a deep and abiding faith in his religion and in America’s founding principles, and as a stable and moral leader whom voters can trust to lead the country.

 

On that score, Romney’s high-profile endorsers, such as South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, Senator John McCain and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie campaigning alongside him and offering their personal testimonials is an asset.

 

They can help him to convince conservatives as well as independents and the so-called Reagan Democrats around the country to trust him to fulfill his campaign promises that Barack Obama clearly did not.

 

SPEAKING TO THE LARGER AUDIENCE

 

At this point in the campaign, the best way for Romney to market himself is to continue to speak as directly as he can to the millions of voters across the country who are tuning in to the remaining debates and primary night speeches in order to form their first impressions.

 

At no time did he get his message across more effectively than last week in his New Hampshire victory speech. The event was carefully choreographed by his campaign for the prime time national television audience.

 

Standing in front of a crowd of sign-waving supporters on stadium bleachers in the round, and a sign proclaiming the Romney slogan: “BELIEVE IN AMERICA,” the candidate and his attractive family went out to greet and introduce themselves to the American people again.

 

GETTING THE MESSAGE ACROSS

 

He then gave an 11 minute speech which many said contained the most effective talking points of Romney’s campaign so far. They combined stinging criticism of Obama’s policies with a message of hope to voters assuring them that everything can get better. For example:

 

“The president has run out of ideas; now he’s running out of excuses.”

 

“If you believe that the disappointments of the last few years are a detour, not a destiny, then I’m asking for your vote.”

 

Even some of Romney’s conservative critics praised the speech, calling it an effective expression of conviction. It also showed the influence of Romney’s new speechwriter, Lindsay Hayes, who previously wrote for Sarah Palin.

 

“That speech by Romney was a unifying speech; it wasn’t a divisive speech,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of political rhetoric and communication at the University of Pennsylvania. “You need to hear from a candidate optimism about the future and a projected capacity to realize that future together, and Romney’s speech did that.”

 

As Romney finished his speech, his grandchildren rushed on stage to join him. Together, they waved. It was the personal image of their candidate that his campaign wanted American voters to take away from the evening.

 

Jamieson said, “It’s difficult to look at that picture and say, yes, he woke up in the morning and decided to eliminate entire companies and throw large numbers of people out of work because all he cares about is money. The visual rebuttal is the devoted family and wife – and look at those adorable grandchildren!”

 

The Washington Post contributed to this story.