Romney’s Rivals Fizzle in South Carolina


romney-gingrich-paulDifferent state, same old story. And Mitt Romney is smiling.

Even before the first votes of this nomination fight, the Republican presidential rivals to Mr. Romney were pointing to South Carolina. Iowa would be a scrum, they explained, and New Hampshire a foregone Romney conclusion. But South Carolina, well . . . watch that space. The Palmetto State would be the opportunity for one candidate to break out, unite all those South Carolina conservatives, and make this a race.

Someone might want to tell South Carolina. For all the bickering among the campaigns about how real Mr. Romney’s lead is here, there is one polling fact that is undeniable: No one Romney opponent is breaking out. The non-Romney vote is as split as ever, and for that the non-Romneys have only themselves to blame. They’re botching it.

Some 30 years after Ronald Reagan assembled his winning coalition, the task of any candidate who wants to unite conservatives remains largely the same: Run on a message that brings together economic libertarians, defense hawks and social conservatives. That’s the game here, the first-in-the-South primary, a state with sizable contingents of limited government, military and evangelical voters.

Newt Gingrich, who as recently as last month held a 20-point lead here, initially seemed to understand that job. His closing Iowa argument was that voters faced a choice between a “Massachusetts moderate” and a candidate born to a “bold Reagan conservatism” that highlighted economic growth and opportunity. Whether that message would have rescued Mr. Gingrich from his sliding poll numbers, we’ll never know.

He couldn’t stick with it. Mr. Gingrich is a gifted and knowledgeable politician, traits that have also given rise to a certain egoism and lack of discipline. Even before the Iowa caucuses, he was wandering off message, and his bitter, fourth-place finish inspired a vendetta against Mr. Romney. The optimistic Gingrich growth campaign quickly gave way to the opportunistic Gingrich Bain assault.

Running for a Republican nomination as an anticapitalist is not the smartest politics. Doing it even as you acknowledge taking $1.6 million from taxpayer ward Freddie Mac is the opposite of smart. The Gingrich team was betting it could tap into populist anger against wealthy Americans, but it misjudged its South Carolina audience.

This is the state that for the past year has been the epicenter of the debate on the merits of a free market because of President Obama’s National Labor Relations Board attack on Boeing. The voters here get creative destruction, and when Mr. Gingrich brought up Bain at a forum in Charleston on Saturday, he was booed.

By Sunday, at an event in Georgetown, S.C.-a town that had once had a steel mill shut by Bain-he’d dropped the Bain line altogether and returned to his “Reagan conservatism” argument, insisting he’s the best choice to counter “Obama radicalism.” But it’s arguably a little late for a refocus.

Focus has not been a problem for Rick Santorum, whose late Iowa surge was on the back of evangelical support, and who remains focused on that constituency here. The economy may be in the tank, Iran may be threatening, but the former Pennsylvania senator doesn’t want to talk about that. He’s making the pure pitch to social conservatives.

At an event here in Florence-a regional business hub in this state’s coastal plain-Mr. Santorum spent an hour talking about his faith, “strong families” and America as a “moral enterprise.” He cast the general-election stakes as a choice of two radically different cultural visions of America, and he boasted he was the only candidate who would openly fight on issues like abortion. It won him applause from certain quarters. But it left many attendees wondering when Mr. Santorum was going to talk about his tax plan, or his views on national defense. Save for responding to questions, he never really did.

Yet South Carolina voters want to hear about these issues, and in depth. If Iowa showed anything, it is that in this age of Obama and high unemployment and terror threats, even cultural conservatives are voting on more than faith. That explains the growing fight over whether Mr. Santorum should have won the recent endorsement of a group of 150 social conservative leaders-or whether the nod should have gone to Mr. Gingrich. The social right is as split as anyone.

Lurking, too, in South Carolina minds are doubts about Mr. Santorum’s economic credentials. Ron Paul has been running an ad noting Mr. Santorum’s vote against federal right-to-work legislation, which would restrict unions from forcing membership and dues. Voters are also aware of his past votes for acts like Davis-Bacon, which requires taxpayers to pay union rates in government-funded contracts and disadvantages nonunion companies in right-to-work South Carolina. Voters are open to Mr. Santorum’s reassurance, and the former senator has the smarts and skills to offer it. But he’s not bothering.

Ron Paul has likewise pursued a narrow approach, pitching himself to small-government economic conservatives. That purity arouses great passion in a certain core following, but it leaves Americans who are concerned about foreign policy and social issues cold.

Rick Perry, for his part, has yet to figure out who he is courting: One minute he’s slamming Mr. Obama’s “war on religion,” the next smacking “vulture capitalism,” the next flogging his “energy jobs” plan. His herky-jerky campaign has underlined his lack of preparation.

And so, while the Romney rivals now openly exhort voters to hurry, to unify, to stop the Romney march, too few may be listening. The four main opponents to the former Massachusetts governor are, among them, splitting almost 60% of the vote.

Mr. Romney has steadily motored on, pounding at his two themes of competence and electability. He’s been running ads since last year slamming the Obama administration for its Boeing assault, while enlisting South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to act as his local surrogate. The Bain attacks have, if anything, helped solidify some of his support. And Jon Huntsman’s withdrawal and endorsement will throw a few more voters his way. Should Mr. Romney win a clear victory here, the nomination may be over but for the balloons and confetti.

Messrs. Gingrich, Paul, Santorum and Perry can’t argue that they haven’t had a shot. Super PACs have assured they have had the money to compete in South Carolina, despite varying prior performances. South Carolinians have hardly rallied behind the flawed Mr. Romney-his polling average in this state remains at 30%-and they remain open to a compelling alternative.

They just haven’t seen anything compelling enough to unite them. And the non-Romneys are running out of time.

{The Wall Street Journal/ Newscenter}


  1. Matzav used to like Newsmax.
    Now, when Newsmax is being more accurate than say, The Wall Street Journal,you’re going to all these others.

  2. The Atlantic:

    The four Republican candidates nipping at Mitt Romney’s heels all needed a breakout moment at Monday night’s debate in South Carolina. One of them — Newt Gingrich — got it. He took a question on race as the occasion for a fiery crescendo of righteous indignation, capping it off with a screed against political correctness. The rambunctious crowd in the debate hall ate it up, as, in all likelihood, did the GOP voters watching at home.

    If the debate was a contest between Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry to seem the most enticing alternative to Romney, Gingrich took the category, though Santorum and Perry had some good moments too. If it was a contest to knock down Romney, that didn’t happen. The front-runner was caught flat-footed with surprising frequency, but while he wobbled mightily — from walking into a trap on felons’ voting rights to mixing up elk and moose — he retained his composure, and he did not fall down. Ron Paul, whose debate performances largely take place in a world apart from his competitors, was unusually rambling and incoherent; in past debates this cycle, he’s been far more agile in defending his unorthodox views.

    A breakdown of the night’s action:

    * Gingrich en fuego. The former speaker is at his best — or worst, depending on your view — when he gets worked up about some aspect of the culture that he disagrees with. Thus, a question from co-moderator Juan Williams about whether his statements on welfare and race could be considered offensive was right in Gingrich’s wheelhouse, combining as it did ’90s flashbacks and an occasion for high dudgeon. First, Gingrich defended his proposal that poor children should work as janitors in schools with a class-based jab: “Only the elites despise earning money,” he said, referring presumably to the leisure class of landed gentry that is such a fixture of American society. When Williams followed up, to loud boos from the crowd, Gingrich replied: “First of all, Juan, the fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history. I know, among the politically correct, you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable.”

    Though that answer was Gingrich at his most acerbically crowd-pleasing, he was like that most of the night, aside from an awkward first answer defending his attacks on Romney’s Bain Capital business experience. This is the Gingrich Republicans fell in love with, zingy and compellingly bombastic. A barrage of attacks set him reeling for a while, but on Monday night, nobody brought up his work for Freddie Mac or his position on immigration. The question is whether, at this late hour, this version of Gingrich can replace the more sordid depiction of him being peddled relentlessly in television ads by the SuperPAC supporting Romney.

    * Romney, shaken but not stirred. Romney began the debate seeming cool and collected. He was clearly prepared to parry the attacks on Bain, and he did so smoothly. But then Santorum called upon him to get behind an attack leveled by his SuperPAC, the accusation that Santorum was soft on felons because he supported letting them regain their voting rights in some circumstances. Santorum, in the attack-dog mode at which he excels, demanded that Romney say where he stood on the issue. When Romney said he did not believe “people who committed violent crimes should be allowed to vote,” Santorum pointed out that Massachusetts under Romney had even more lenient rules for felon enfranchisement than the ones Santorum supported. “If in fact you felt so passionately about this, why didn’t you try to change that when you were governor?” he asked. Romney’s reply was a lame hash of politician-y excuses.

    It was only the first of many moments when Romney seemed caught out on a question he should have been able to answer. To demands that he release his tax returns, he fumbled around and eventually suggested he might do so in April. “Time will tell,” he said, mysteriously. To a question about his life as a hunter, a topic that embarrassed him soundly four years ago, he couldn’t be sure whether he’d stalked elk or moose. To a grilling on SuperPACs, he professed total innocence of his supporters’ attacks even as he claimed them as his own: “I haven’t talked to any of the people involved with my SuperPAC for months!” (Gingrich: “Governor Romney’s SuperPAC, over which he claims he has no influence…makes you wonder how much influence he has as president.”)

    It wasn’t all, or even mostly, bad for Romney. For the most part, particularly on foreign affairs, he was polished, and he frequently employed the statesmanlike gimmick of professing agreement with his rivals. But for a guy who’s trying to convince his party he has the stature to be the nominee, he has a remarkable way of making himself seem smaller than life.

    * Is there enough oxygen for Santorum? A proficient debater, Santorum pinned Romney to the ropes in their exchange on felons. But his display of technical skill was relatively bloodless and came on an issue Republican primary voters aren’t particularly agitated about. It was a similar story on Social Security later in the debate: his technically detailed dissertation paled in comparison to Gingrich’s emotionally laden diatribes. Attacking Gingrich for proposals Santorum claimed would balloon the deficit, he seemed to be making a progressive argument for taxing the rich: “We’re borrowing money from China to pay those millionaires!” Gingrich’s response, that what government should spend less on is wasteful programs for low-income people, effectively neutralized the attack. With Gingrich and Santorum battling for the same space in South Carolina Republicans’ hearts, it was clear which one made the strongest case Monday.

    * Too little, too late for Perry. As was the case in the two New Hampshire debates last weekend, Perry was mostly on his game, articulate and populist. He declared, “South Carolina is at war with this federal government!”, a battle cry that smacked of his notorious old hints at Texas secession. He made Romney uncomfortable by posing the tax return issue in strong terms. He argued forcefully against cuts to military spending and condemned the administration’s condemnation of the Marines caught urinating on Taliban corpses: “Let me tell you what’s utterly despicable, cutting Danny Pearl’s head off.” (Former colleagues of Pearl, the late Wall Street Journal correspondent executed in Pakistan in 2002, complained on Twitter that he would have disapproved of this example.) But Perry also got caught out on a question about Turkey, calling its leaders “Islamic terrorists.” He just plain looked like he had no idea what he was talking about.

    * A meandering Ron Paul. The Texas congressman’s digressive instincts have mostly been held in check this primary season. In debates, he’s often done an impressive job of articulating his libertarian ideals, never backing down from defending even the views — on topics like Iran or drug legalization — that are most unpopular in the mainstream of the GOP. But on Monday, he began with an off-putting note of glee at his campaign’s attacks on Santorum: “I only had one problem [with the ad],” he said, grinning: “I couldn’t get all the things in I wanted to say in one minute!” He might as well have been rubbing his hands together and cackling. Even for an unconventional candidate, it was unseemly. Later in the debate, he got lost in the weeds of foreign policy and appeared to muddle the names of the terrorists he was discussing. Paul’s supporters, like their hero, are so driven by pure ideology that such trivial, cosmetic matters as “performance” don’t matter to them. But if he was hoping to win converts Monday, that seems unlikely.

  3. Newt gave an excellent performance, you never got the feeling he was struggling for answers, everything he said was well thought out and made sense. Romney will only win Carolina if the conservatives split the vote. This election should already be down to Newt vs. Mitt. I agree, Ron Paul was more incoherent than ever last night.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here