Something very unusual is happening in South Carolina this
week, and by the time the votes are counted, the "unusual" may
be something "historic." As I always caution, wait until the votes
are counted before drawing conclusions, and be careful about the
practice of polling, but there can be little doubt that the conventional
wisdom that the 2012 Republican presidential nomination contest
was virtually over (I admit that I, contrarian that I try to be, indulged
in some of it myself) is now at least questionable.
If Mitt Romney somehow loses to Newt Gingrich, it will be a powerful
body blow to the commonplace, held almost universally only a week
ago, that his nomination was inevitable. Of course, a loss by Romney
does not prevent him from being nominated in Tampa. He still has
overwhelming resources, and there is no reason why he, too, cannot
stage a comeback of his own.
If Mr. Romney fumbles a double-digit lead in the South Carolina with
less than a week to go, and his national lead is "crumbling" (according
to a published account by a Gallup source) in the same time frame,
something must be fundamentally faulty in his campaign to date.
The 2012 GOP contest has been volatile since it began in earnest many
months ago. Mr. Romney has been the nominal frontrunner who saw
his lead fade briefly to a series of political "bubbles" which, one by one,
thrust his rivals ahead of him. But each, including Michele Bachmann,
Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, fell
behind him soon enough. His surprise "tie" in Iowa, his bigger than
expected win in New Hampshire, and his commanding lead in South
Carolina, coupled with his growing double-digit lead in national polls,
had many of his opponents and critics throwing in the political towel.
I make no claim to an original insight here when I say that, when the
race came to South Carolina, and there were two televised debates,
he did not demonstrate that he was prepared to fight for a win. He
had debated well, spoken well, and organized well before South
Carolina; he had even played "hardball" against then-temporary
frontrunner Gingrich in Iowa, but with a big lead going into South
Carolina, he seemed to be coasting.
In the first South Carolina debate, it was Mr. Santorum who strongly
confronted Mr. Romney over the issue of voting rights for felons who
have done their prison time. It as not an issue likely to help Mr.
Santorum with voters, and many analysts concluded that Mr. Romney
had lost the battle but won the war. But had he? Previous to South
Carolina, Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Perry had challenged Mr. Romney on
his record as CEO at Bain Capital. Many conservatives, including many
who did not support Mr. Romney, immediately criticized Gingrich and
Perry for "questioning capitalism" especially as conservatives. Mr.
Romney himself took up this theme at both South Carolina debates,
suggesting questioning his business record was off-limits for fellow
Republicans. The conventional wisdom was that Mr. Romney had the
But apparently many Republican voters do not agree. Yes, most voters
are not obsessed with former felons' voting rights, nor are they
necessarily opposed to or resentful of Mr. Romney's self-made
fortune. The conventional wisdom was in looking at the surface only of
those discussions. What Republican voters, and independent and
disgruntled Democratic voters, really may care about is whether Mr.
Romney is prepared truly to fight for this nomination, and thus to do
battle in November against an incumbent president, and finally to be
the kind of president the nation needs in this historic hour when the
United States faces so many crises at home and all over the world.
What both Mr. Santorum, to a lesser degree, and Mr Gingrich, to a
greater degree, have demonstrated over the campaign season so far,
and in the South Carolina debates in particular, was the strength of
their sense of mission in the 2012 election. Yes, they have shown lots
of ego and sense of self, but it has always seemed to be tied to
deeply-held principles that each have espoused consistently over time.
I happen to think that Mr. Gingrich's overall vision is the larger, more
experienced one, but I have to give Mr. Santorum credit for his tenacity
and consistency. In the South Carolina debates, it was Mr. Gingrich who
showed the most combative and eloquent presentation of himself and
his ideas. Mr. Santorum called Mr. Gingrich "grandiose" (although
some might say that Mr Santorum's oft-repeated claim of "being the
only person on this stage who is a true conservative" does not lack
grandiosity), but Mr. Gingrich embraced the word by saying that it was
what the next president needed to confront and resolve the problems
the nation faced.
And this is the nub of it.
The next person to be nominated by the Republican Party to be
president, and then if successful in the November election, to serve as
chief executive and commander-in-chief, will need extraordinary
abilities, perspectives, judgment and temperment. 2013 to 2017 is
almost certain to be a time of domestic problems and international
challenges without precedent.
I am not saying that Mitt Romney is not this person. But I am saying,
if he loses South Carolina, he will have to present himself anew in the
remaining contest and demonstrate not only that he has the resume
and skill to be president, but the will and passion to do the job.
My readers know that I have been a constant critic of President Barack
Obama over the past two years. But I do remember during his campaign
for the Democratic nomination in 2008, after his initial successes and
early lead in delegates from the primaries and caucuses, his principal
rival, Hilary Clinton, began a remarkable comeback of her own, and it
seemed possible she could still win. I remember reading an account of
Mr. Obama, at this time, personally rallying his staff and showing the
grit to keep his lead. It worked, and he not only won the nomination,
but he won the presidency. I knew then, though I may not have agreed
with his politics, that he was a formidable political figure.
The Republican who is nominated in Tampa, and takes his party's case
to the voters of America, will have to be no less formidable.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman
All rights reserved.