Mitt Romney is going for the kill in South Carolina.
The Jan. 21 primary could crown Mitt Romney as the Republican nominee, making the former Massachusetts governor three for three in the early states. Polls have Romney leading South Carolina by double digits, and no other candidate has his campaign cash, organization and political momentum. History in the South Carolina GOP primary is clear: The winner always nabs the nomination.
Yet, there are certainly pitfalls for Romney in the days ahead, something a senior South Carolina Romney adviser acknowledged.
Romney is the first non-incumbent presidential candidate in history to win both New Hampshire and Iowa, and most agree that a win in South Carolina would quell criticism that he can’t win over conservatives.
Should Romney triumph in the Palmetto state, it would be hard for any of his poorly funded challengers to raise the money and build the infrastructure to compete in Florida, a state that costs $8 million a week for advertising. Florida votes just 10 days after South Carolina, followed by Super Tuesday a little more than a month later.
A win would also show he can grow his base of support: Romney took just 15 percent in the 2008 South Carolina primary after pulling up stakes in the state shortly before the primary.
But precisely because a South Carolina win would all but guarantee Romney the nomination, his opponents are desperate to stop him. That has already triggered attacks from Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry that some Republicans worry will hurt Romney’s ability to win the general election. Following Romney's win on Tuesday, Perry ripped Romney for practicing "vulture capitalism."
Gingrich has already gone hard after Romney’s time in the private sector, and an outside group run by a longtime Gingrich aide has bought the rights to a documentary slamming him as a “corporate raider” who fired people to make a profit and plans to run trailers for the ad on South Carolina television.
"Nothing was spared, nothing mattered but greed ... Mitt Romney became CEO of Bain Capital the day the company was formed. His mission: to reap massive rewards for himself and his investors," the ad's trailer says. "For tens of thousands of Americans, the suffering began when Mitt Romney came to town.”
The documentary features testimonials from workers whose jobs were eliminated by Bain Capital while Romney led the company. "You're going to be on a hit list, you know that," says one. "It hurt so bad to leave my home because of one man who has 15 homes," says another.
Tompkins fretted about the attacks. “It’s going to be devastating to Gingrich and his reputation,” he said. “But the bigger factor is the president and David Axelrod and all of them in Obama-land are just going to be having belly laughs about this.”
Gingrich has stood by the attacks, saying he was glad to have the support.
Romney criticized him for that stance in his Tuesday night victory speech in New Hampshire. “President Obama wants to put free enterprise on trial. In the last few days, we have seen some desperate Republicans join forces with him,” he said as the pro-Romney crowd booed heartily. “This is such a mistake for our party and for our nation. This country already has a leader who divides us with the bitter politics of envy. We have to offer an alternative vision.”
Many Republicans have criticized Gingrich’s line of attack on Romney, arguing that he is hurting his own campaign as well as Romney’s ability to beat Obama by making the same argument against Romney that Democrats have been making for months.
“What Gingrich is doing may have a permanent impact on the prospects of the Republican nominee. It seems kind of kamikaze,” said Kirsten Fedewa, who was the communications director for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s 2008 presidential run. “I think Gingrich has already bloodied Romney and if I were sitting in the White House I’d be ecstatic that Newt has continued his tirade."
Tompkins said that because so many candidates need a win in South Carolina the testy rhetoric has increased this year. “In the past, there’s only been one person who draws the line in South Carolina and says it’s their last stand. This time it’s three or four guys who’ve said ‘If I don’t win in South Carolina, I’m dead,’” he said, mentioning Gingrich, Santorum and Perry. “The people coming here are desperate. But the good news is if they come out poorly they’re going to struggle to raise money.”
South Carolina has a history of nasty campaigns. In 2000, an email circulated the state saying that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had fathered a black child out of wedlock. In the 2010 gubernatorial primary, Gov. Nikki Haley (R) faced charges that she’d had an affair. Sabato predicted that Romney’s Mormon faith could be one of this year’s targets.
“The state is used to vicious politics, they almost expect it,” he said “All hell will break loose.”