Mitt Romney’s solid victory in New Hampshire last night – overcoming bitter attacks from Newt Gingrich and other contenders – moved the former Massachusetts governor a huge step closer to locking up the Republican presidential nomination. Unless his more conservative rivals manage to coalesce and build a firewall against him in South Carolina – which seems increasingly unlikely -- Romney could well sew up the GOP nomination by early next month.
No other Republican other than a sitting president has ever scored a one-two punch in the opening weeks of the primary season by winning both the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire’s primary.
Romney was declared the victor shortly after the polls closed with 38 percent of the vote, running well ahead of Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, the second place finisher with 24 percent. Former Utah governor and ambassador to China Jon Huntsman Jr. picked up 17 percent – just enough to keep his flagging campaign alive and provide him with a ticket to South Carolina.
They were followed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who waged a blistering personal attack on Romney for the past week, former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania who narrowly finished second to Romney in Iowa, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who spent little time in the state.
A jubilant Romney celebrated with his family and supporters in Manchester, N.H. last night and delivered a speech largely aimed at President Obama. He cited the president’s failed economic remedies, weak foreign policy, and defense posture. “The president has run out of ideas and now he is running out of excuses,” Romney said.
But Romney, 64, a moderate running in an overwhelmingly conservative party, clearly was wounded by his rivals relentless attacks for his role as chief executive of Bain Capital and his own off-the cuff remarks this week that “I like being able to fire people who provide services.”
That comment enabled Gingrich, Huntsman and other opponents to argue that he was a heartless corporate predator who bought, stripped down and then sold companies at great profit for investors and himself while killing off thousands of jobs. Huntsman also blasted Romney over the weekend for criticizing him for working as ambassador to China in the Obama administration, saying that Romney was putting politics ahead of country.
These attacks from Republicans will likely come back to haunt Romney this fall if he emerges as his party’s nominee to challenge President Obama. If conservative forces hope to stop the well-financed and well-organized Romney campaign, they have only 10 days in which to slow his momentum before the Palmetto state’s Jan. 21 primary.
“This state has always been a battle between [Republican] moderates and conservatives – and usually conservatives win, and sometimes moderates,” David Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University and Republican political consultant, told The Fiscal Times. “I think the prospect of somebody like Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, winning here in a state that fired on Fort Sumter is pretty far-fetched. Now the $64 question of course is how much can the conservatives coalesce around one of three candidates?”
But the poor showing by Santorum, Gingrich and Perry in Tuesday’s primary will prevent any of them from heading into the South Carolina primary with a big head of steam. They won’t be able to claim the mantle of the Anybody-but-Romney Republican faction. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., a supporter of the Tea Party, said that there is no perfect candidate in the race who could rally South Carolina conservatives against Romney at this point. “I know it’s couched as a negative that we’re divided,” Gowdy told MSNBC. “I think this is what primaries are for.”
For now, Romney is leading in the polls in South Carolina and Florida (with a Jan. 31 primary), and victories in either or both of those southern states would give Romney an all but certain lock on the Republican presidential nomination. South Carolina Gov. Nikki R. Haley, who rose to power with the help of the Tea Party, and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who won the South Carolina primary in 2008 en route to his party’s presidential nomination, have endorsed Romney.
But Haley has been criticized by many in the Tea Party for backing Romney, and the former Massachusetts governor’s standing in the polls has been slipping in recent weeks. Whether he can survive the continued onslaught by Gingrich and others in the Palmetto state remains to be seen. With Huntsman energized by his third place showing, Romney has to worry that Huntsman might pick off some of his moderate support in South Carolina.
Paul, the libertarian congressman who would eliminate five federal departments, slash foreign aid and bring home most U.S. troops, heads for South Carolina with bragging rights because of his second place finish in New Hampshire and respectable third-place showing in Iowa. However, he trails Romney, Santorum and Gingrich in recent South Carolina polls, and experts say his isolationist, anti-defense positions are hurting him with the 13 percent of the state’s population who are in the military or who had military experience.
If one of the conservatives does suddenly catch fire, the race could shape up a lot like the 2008 GOP contest, when McCain narrowly defeated former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, 33 percent to 30 percent. McCain carried much of the state’s Low Country and the Columbia media market, beating Romney in the affluent suburbs. Huckabee, by contrast, dominated the vote in the northwestern part of the state, from Greenville to Spartanburg and up to the southern outskirts of Charlotte – home to many Evangelical Christians and voters more concerned about social and religious issues than fiscal ones.
Huckabee, the surprise winner of the Iowa caucuses that year, probably would have won the South Carolina primary had it not been for the entry of former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, who drained away some of those conservative votes. McCain’s narrow victory in South Carolina kept him in the race, and he went on to win the Florida primary and subsequently lock up the nomination.
Some experts say that Santorum, with his broad appeal to the religious right, his emotional connection with voters and his extensive experience as a lawmaker on Capitol Hill, could well emerge as the leading conservative alternative to Romney. “It’s got the feel of the Establishment rallying around Romney, and you’ve got the social conservatives rallying around Santorum,” said Tom Davis, a Republican state senator and one-time chief of staff to former governor Mark Sanford. “The challenge for Santorum is twofold: First, he needs to get the lion’s share of the social conservatives and not let them bleed away to Perry or to Gingrich. Second, he somehow has to have himself out there as a fiscal conservative, being the small government candidate.”
That second challenge – to appeal to South Carolina’s substantial Tea Party contingent -- might not be that easy for Santorum. He was skewered by Paul during the New Hampshire GOP debates last weekend for being a “big government” Republican who steered hundreds of millions of dollars worth of federal earmarks and pork barrel projects to his home state. Perry, who almost dropped out of the race after Iowa, is making a last stand in South Carolina, and is hammering Santorum as well as a big-spending Washington insider.
“The tea party energy here in South Carolina isn’t around social issues, it’s around the size of government and fiscal issues,” Davis told the Fiscal Times. “And the attacks on Rick Santorum, it seems to me, make it difficult for him to attract that vote.”
Gingrich might have a similar problem in South Carolina with his relentless attacks on Romney for his hard-edged, predatory business practices during his nearly two decades with Bain Capital. Gingrich’s Winning Our Future SuperPAC this week unleashed $3.4 million of TV ad in South Carolina -- pummeling Romney for equity investment strategies that made billions of dollars in profits for Bain Capital investors but that cost many Americans their jobs.
Some political experts in South Carolina say it isn’t clear at all that voters care as much about Romney’s business tactics as his record as governor and shifting views on health care reform, abortion and taxes.
“I’d pound Romney on ‘Romneycare’,” Woodard said. “It seems to me his record – his flip-flops on abortion and that kind of thing – that’s where he’s really vulnerable here in South Carolina. I don’t think that ganging up on Bain Capital for putting people out of work, that’s not the worst crime in the world. Come on. We’re a capitalist society. People lose their jobs all the time. It seems like a strange choice.”