South Carolina slips through Romney’s hands

On paper, Mitt Romney has the resume to be a legitimate contender for the White House. He’s a successful businessman, an accomplished manager who’s been credited with saving the Salt Lake City Olympics, and a former governor with a signature accomplishment in healthcare reform; all of this makes him among the most qualified aspirants to run for the GOP since Ronald Reagan in 1980. Throw in the fact he’s a devout family man with telegenic looks, and he becomes nothing short of ideal.

But after a strong start in Iowa and New Hampshire, Romney blew a strong lead in South Carolina. He now appears vulnerable as the primaries move on to to Florida. Make no mistake about it, Romney still has the edge in terms of money, organization, and establishment endorsements. Yet Newt Gingrich was able to portray the choice for the Republican leadership last week as being between an authentic Reagan conservative and  a moderate Massachusetts conservative with a liberal record. He won handily as a result.

This says more about Romney’s weaknesses than Gingrich’s strengths. If Romney now loses in Florida, there will be panic among establishment Republicans. Romney’s problem seems to be his inability to convey to voters why he wants to be president and what he would do when he gets to the White House. This latest defeat raises doubts about Romney’s strongest asset—his supposed potential to beat Obama. Gingrich’s victory has shown that Romney may not have what is needed for the long-haul battle against Obama.

Is South Carolina a sign that Gingrich has been underestimated? Not necessarily. Newt is clearly the best debater among the Republican contenders. But anyone who has followed U.S. politics can’t be surprised that Gingrich has the experience, knowledge, and skills to be a formidable debater. What is perplexing, then, is that Romney seems to be constantly surprised by this.

Romney’s claims about job creation at Bain Capital were mostly legitimate, but he should have known that a private equity firm is not in the business of just creating jobs—and that his record at Bain would be challenged by small-business-owner Gingrich. Romney references his time as governor, but he rarely boasts about his accomplishments. He whines about Gingrich using “Obama-style” arguments against him, but Romney knows very well that presidential races aren’t for the feint of heart.

Unlike the Obama-Clinton contest in 2008, this Republican contest is not producing a stronger frontrunner. And this was already the GOP’s B-team, with the top names choosing to stay on the sidelines. Romney should have been an A-team candidate, but his performance this past week has pushed him further down the alphabet.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.