By Luke Brinker
Had you told me six months ago that Mitt Romney would lose the pivotal South Carolina primary by a margin of 12 points, I’d have felt safe in pronouncing his prospects for the GOP nomination nil. After all, every GOP winner of South Carolina since 1980 has gone on to claim the party’s nod. If Romney couldn’t eke out a victory in a white, conservative, Southern state, how could he possibly stand a realistic chance of leading a largely white, conservative, Southern party?
But as the GOP primary process has progressed over the last several months, Romney has shown himself to be an incredibly lucky man. Each candidate who appeared to be his chief challenger – Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum – experienced spectacular falls that eclipsed their spectacular rises. For all his flaws, Romney looked like he would be the last man standing. And given the GOP base’s visceral antipathy toward President Barack Obama, the party would surely rally behind Romney as the candidate most likely to defeat the president.
Alas, Romney’s path to the nomination has been diverted, if not necessarily derailed. Capitalizing on his combative debate performances, his questioning of Romney’s conservative credentials, and voter unease with Romney’s massive wealth, Gingrich staged a remarkable comeback in South Carolina. Not only did the former speaker beat Romney there, but he did so by a margin of 40 percent to 28 percent. While I’ve been skeptical of the conservative Stop Romney movement, I can’t simply write off Gingrich’s decisive victory in the Palmetto State as a fluke. The GOP base’s suspicion of Romney appears to be catching up with him, and if conservatives coalesce behind Gingrich, Romney is finished. Whether that happens remains to be seen.
For now, I stand by my prediction that Romney will ultimately pull this thing off. I do so not out of a stubborn refusal to admit I was wrong, but out of a profound skepticism about Gingrich’s staying power. If Romney had to pick a candidate to emerge as his main challenger, why wouldn’t he pick the baggage-laden Gingrich? A candidate with a complicated marital history, a record of policy flip-flops (on health care, climate change, and private equity, for example) almost as egregious as Romney’s, a $1.6 million deal for advising housing giant Freddie Mac, and a controversy-tainted tenure as House Speaker that ended in disgrace and a $300,000 ethics fine does not have the ideal resume for a party standard-bearer. Now that Romney has no choice but to take Gingrich seriously, he’s sure to highlight these stains on Gingrich’s record, and it may be enough to vanquish the Gingrich challenge. (There’s a case to be made, though, that conservative voters have already priced in these risks in their assessment of Gingrich, and that they still support him as the most viable conservative alternative in the race.)
What will it take for Gingrich to overcome his formidable obstacles? If he manages to defeat Romney by a convincing margin in Florida’s winner-take-all primary on January 31, all bets are off. Romney may yet prevail after a Florida loss, but he would certainly lose his status as the favorite, and party elites would begin to wonder how strong a general election candidate Romney would be if he couldn’t fend off as troubled a candidate as Gingrich. Ominously for Romney’s campaign, there’s ample reason to believe he could blow it in Florida. The latest polls in the state have Gingrich leading by a fairly large margin. More fundamentally, Florida could be the state where Romney’s shameless pandering to the far right causes significant political backlash. Hispanics will be a key voting bloc in the state, and even more conservative Hispanics will not appreciate Romney’s hard-line immigration stance. (As Massachusetts governor, Romney sounded a more moderate note on the issue.) Gingrich, on the other hand, has been the most immigrant-friendly candidate in the GOP contest, as evidenced by these remarks in a CNN debate on November 22:
I don’t see how the party that says it’s the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families that have been here a quarter century. And I’m prepared to take the heat for saying, let’s be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship but by finding a way to create legality so that they are not separated from their families.
Add in the fact that Gingrich, a Catholic convert, shares the religion of an overwhelming majority of Hispanics, and there’s a very real chance that Gingrich could harness his policy positions and cultural appeal to dominate among Hispanic voters. With Romney poised to enter attack dog mode this week, the next few days will be critical in determining whether Gingrich will be well-positioned in the Sunshine State a week from tomorrow.