Newt’s a battering ram who’ll wind up in splinters, but he can do plenty of damage along the way. The candidate people immediately speak of here when talk turns to the GOP primary is a man named Romneybut. “I like Romney but I could change my mind.” “I like Romney but I like Santorum too.” People take a kind of chagrined pride in the state’s past reputation for crazed, malice-laden, bare-knuckle political brawling; they look away and laugh if you speak of Lee Atwater’s old charge that a Democratic candidate had a “psychotic neurosis” and received electroshock therapy “hooked up to jumper cables.”
But that was two generations ago, the old world. South Carolina’s modern now, fully wired, demographically on the move. They still open up the first meeting of the statehouse GOP caucus with unifying prayer—”My wife’s being operated on at 2 p.m. today, I’d ask you to pray that the Lord guide the surgeon’s hands,” “Bob Smith died in a car accident last weekend, please pray for his family”—but some people are looking down not only with reverence. They’re also checking their BlackBerrys.
No one knows what’s going to happen, because South Carolina takes pride in being prickly. They have a 30-year history of picking presidents, and nobody tells them who to pick. “New Hampshire thinks it’s independent? Our great-great-great-great-grandfathers fired on the flag!” That’s state GOP chairman Chad Connelly, sunny and garrulous. He’s building up excitement and running out of breath doing it. “This thing is wide open. It’s a battle royal. People are undecided. The debates will be decisive. South Carolina is the focal point of the world the next 10 days!” It is a great talent in life to spin relentlessly and not at all alienate the spinee.
All that said, if Mitt Romney wins here, he will win the nomination. And it’s likely he will win here—that Romneybut will become Romney. But it’s a real question how much damage will be done to him along the way.
People don’t embrace Mr. Romney, they circle back to him. They consider him, shop around for something better, decide the first product they looked at will last longest and give value, and buy.
The non-Mitt candidates continue, fracturing the conservative vote. Because no one dropped out after New Hampshire, no consolidation of the non-Mitt vote can begin here and get in the way of the buying. Newt Gingrich, tops in state polls a few weeks ago, has damaged himself by the means and manner of his campaign. Rick Santorum will have appeal, but he’s voted against right-to-work legislation, and South Carolina is a big right-to-work state. Ron Paul will have appeal too, not only in the coastal cities but among active and retired military personnel, who’ve been fighting the wars the past 10 years.
Mr. Romney has the support of Gov. Nikki Haley, 39, an Indian-American who rose with the Tea Party and won after receiving Sarah Palin’s endorsement. She backed him early, to signal to her supporters that it was OK. In an interview this week, she said the issues are “jobs, spending and the economy. Everyone in South Carolina knows somebody who’s out of work.” State unemployment is 9.9%, higher than the national average. “I’ve killed myself to bring jobs here. I need a president I can work with.” “I don’t want anyone tied to Washington. I have a great respect for business people to create jobs and make tough decisions. . . . Romney can do that.”
Mr. Romney has national organization that he can plug in locally, and money. And now momentum, which will prove crucial.
The chief argument here for Mr. Romney has been that he is electable, the most rightward viable candidate. That was powerfully reinforced by his victory in New Hampshire. “If he has a 25% ceiling, how come he just won with 39%?” His victory speech, more like an acceptance speech, was powerful: he finally brought all the strands together. This is what my candidacy means, this is what I’ll do. That speech will have positive reverberations.
South Carolina continues to evolve. Retirees from the North increasingly populate the coastal towns and cities. They are economic conservatives, sympathetic to business. The top of the state, the Greenville/Spartanburg area is heavily Christian conservative, but less so. “It was the knot on the Bible Belt, now it’s the knot on the fiscal belt,” says a Romney backer. International companies, and their networks of suppliers, have had an impact.
The evangelical vote is split, and the economic calamity of the last four years has, in a way, become a values issue itself. Efforts to help the poor and the unborn, to have and raise children, to keep families together, are not made easier by a stressed economy. Social and economic issues are blending.
This is what you pick up about Mr. Romney in South Carolina: He is presentable, electable and a businessman. He knows what a spreadsheet is. He made money. He can help set up the circumstances where everyone else makes money too. And he is a conservative. He has the vibrations of a Massachusetts moderate—Newt isn’t wrong about that—because he was a Massachusetts moderate. But now he holds conservative positions. He’s not going to change them again, because you get only one chance to change in politics, not two. He is, therefore, perversely reliable. He’s not going to get into the White House and announce: “By the way, I’m pro-choice again, ha.”
The factor the media expected to hurt Romney—evangelicals will, en masse, reject the Mormon—isn’t likely. Part of the reason is the big blend: Bias feels like self-indulgence in a time of crisis. What could hurt him, what actually promises to, is the Bain Capital attacks, the half hour minidocumentary and the commercials derived from its message. The documentary is first-rate agitprop: Mr. Romney has a nice smile but in real life he’s a pious, new-class operator who swoops in, buys companies, breaks them up, lines his pockets, and calls it freedom. Might this gain traction in a high-unemployment state with a long populist tradition? I think so. You should see the faces of the people who talk about being laid off.
It’s not clear whether Mr. Gingrich will air the documentary in South Carolina. If he does, he’s going for broke.
Those who run Romney campaign would be fools not to answer it, quickly and substantively, not only with a defense of free enterprise but with a defense of Bain. Are claims in the ad not true? Say it. Is there a case that more jobs were created by Bain than lost? Make it—with workers in front of workplaces that now exist because Bain existed.
A full-throated, detailed defense of Bain that is also a defense of economic freedom and free markets might not only benefit Mr. Romney. It just might help valorize, or rather revalorize, the reputation of capitalism, which has taken a beating the past few years and not recovered. That, actually, might be a public service.
The Obama campaign wanted to launch its Bain attack in the fall. Mr. Romney can face the attack now, head on, and begin not inoculating himself from the issue but exhausting it.