The former Massachusetts governor built strong bases in Iowa and New Hampshire four years ago, and he matched his 2008 showing exactly in Iowa this year (25 percent) and exceeded it by a few points in New Hampshire last week (32 percent in 2008 compared with 39 percent now).
But Romney can’t merely match or barely exceed his ’08 showing in South Carolina to win Saturday’s Republican primary. He’ll need to approach doubling that showing to ensure another win.
Romney probably can win South Carolina by drawing the same number that McCain did in the state four years ago: 33 percent. And, while it isn’t inevitable, that certainly seems possible. And Romney is in the fortunate position that he doesn’t need to finish first on Saturday. He did well in Iowa a couple of weeks ago, while McCain essentially wrote off the Iowa caucuses in 2008, finishing fourth there with 13 percent.
For McCain, South Carolina was absolutely crucial. For Romney, a win in the Palmetto State would all but lock up the nomination, but a second-place showing would still keep him very much in the hunt, headed to expensive Florida, where he finished a credible second to McCain in 2008, and friendly Nevada, where he won half of caucus attendees.
Of course, there is a bit of irony here, if you are looking for some.
Four years ago, Romney was backed by many conservatives because they viewed him as the best, indeed the only, Republican who could stop Arizona “maverick” McCain from winning the GOP nomination.
South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, for example, among the most prominent and outspoken conservatives in the Senate, endorsed Romney in 2008 in his effort to prevent McCain from getting the Republican nod. DeMint’s letter in support of Romney was glowing and effusive in its praise. But DeMint has not embraced Romney in this race (though some of his close allies did so late last week) and Monday he made clear he would not offer a presidential endorsement.
To the Republican right, Romney was better than McCain, but he isn’t better than a number of his opponents this time.
So, to a great degree in the 2012 contest, Romney has become McCain — except without the Arizonan’s greatest asset, his military record and heroism.
The question for Romney, both in South Carolina and beyond, is how much of his 2008 vote he can hold and how much of McCain’s vote he can add to it. The populist, anti-Bain attacks from Gingrich and Perry only increase the likelihood that Romney will grow his appeal.