The combination of Mitt Romney’s 16-point victory in New Hampshire and his rousing election night speech launched the former Massachusetts governor toward South Carolina with the kind of old-fashioned momentum that any candidate for high office would love.
Of course, Romney’s competitors are not without their assets. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) is a world-class talker who has a 10,000-word answer to any question. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) is serious and even thoughtful. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is down-home. Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) is principled and determined.
But other than Romney, the only Republican who fit the presidential mold was former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who finally got a reality check and ended his campaign Monday since he had no route to victory.
Romney’s persona doesn’t guarantee his nomination, of course, but that isn’t all he has. He also has a well-funded, well-oiled national political machine, a consistently conservative stump speech that fits his party and the growing aura of both electability and inevitability.
Still, if conservatives can rally behind a single alternative to Romney, they can at least have an opportunity to stop his momentum and reframe the race. After all, they do have years of ammunition to use against him.
How did anti-Romney conservatives get themselves into this pickle once again? Perry’s supporters convinced him that his Southern roots and regional appeal will eventually allow him to emerge as the conservative standard-bearer, while Santorum believes that, after his photo-finish showing in Iowa, he has become the logical alternative to Romney.
And Gingrich? Well, Newt can’t conceive that voters would actually choose someone other than him to go against President Barack Obama, and his anger and frustration over Romney’s attacks on him and his quick descent from frontrunner to also-ran won’t allow him to exit before South Carolina voters have their say.
While the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary have produced winners such as Pat Buchanan and Mike Huckabee during the past 20 years, the Palmetto State’s list of GOP primary winners looks like a roster of frontrunners: John McCain (2008), George W. Bush (2000), Bob Dole (1996) and George H.W. Bush (1988).
South Carolina, after all, isn’t just the state of Bob Jones University. It’s also the state of Sen. Lindsey Graham and former Gov. Mark Sanford, two Republicans who were elected with greater support from the business community and country clubs than from the churches.
Still, six out of 10 Palmetto State GOP primary voters in 2008 described themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians, and only 31 percent of those primary voters identified themselves as moderate or liberal, far fewer than the 48 percent who accepted those labels in the New Hampshire primary.
For Romney, the scariest number might well be 15 percent — the figure he drew in the Palmetto State’s 2008 primary.