A week ago, Mitt Romney led Newt Gingrich in the South Carolina opinion polls by an average of eight percentage points. Today, he is licking his wounds from a 12-point loss there in the only poll that matters, the one taken at the ballot box.
Romney spent Sunday suggesting he will sharpen his attacks on Gingrich, particularly his character and past leadership performance, and that’s fair game and fine as far as it goes. But South Carolina voters — and Republican voters more broadly — have not gravitated toward Gingrich because they think his track record in those areas is superlative, or even because they’re unaware of his shortcomings in them. He has attracted voters because he’s proven willing to be a fighter, while Romney has come off as unwilling to protest as much.
That this would have happened in South Carolina after attacks by Gingrich and his super PAC against Romney’s record at Bain Capital, and by others about Romney’s wealth and tax payments, is telling (note I did not say Gingrich had proven willing to fight for conservative principles, in large part because of those not-so-conservative attack lines). Romney needs to find his voice on those issues of wealth, taxes and free enterprise that Democrats are bound to use against the GOP’s nominee, particularly if it’s him. That vulnerability has made Republicans question whether Romney is up to the task.
The race is now bound to continue well past Florida — although, even with its reduced delegate total, that will be a huge test for Romney’s ability to regroup and regain the initiative in a state where he has held a sizable lead in most polls. After that, Georgia will come into play as a crucial state on Super Tuesday (March 6).
Hang on, because we’re going to get to see a real barn-burner of a primary up close and personal.
– By Kyle Wingfield