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What Mitt Must Learn from South Carolina

11:00 PM, Jan 21, 2012 • By FRED BARNES
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Mitt Romney needs a big idea. And it’s not the one he cited at the beginning of his speech after his humiliating loss to Newt Gingrich in the South Carolina primary Saturday. Executive experience matters, Romney said. He has it and Gingrich, like President Obama, doesn’t.

Mitt Romney

That’s not a winning argument—far from it. Voters in South Carolina rallied to Gingrich because his campaign is based on a big idea: he’ll crush Obama in debates and win the White House. And he’s fervent and tough in pursuing the presidency, as he showed in denouncing CNN debate anchor John King for raising charges by his ex-wife that he wanted an “open marriage.”

A big idea and passion trump experience. Voters didn’t elect Ronald Reagan because he’d been governor of California. They chose him over President Carter in 1980 because he had a daring plan for reviving the economy and was committed to rolling back Soviet communism.

Romney’s insistence on touting, above all, his years as a corporate turnaround expert at Bain Capital and his understanding of the economy simply don’t cut it in a hotly contested Republican presidential race. Those don’t produce enthusiasm or momentum.

Gingrich generated considerable momentum coming into yesterday’s election and his double-digit victory over Romney only added to it. Money and organization give Romney an advantage in the Florida primary on January 31. But Gingrich could blow past Romney with the energy of his campaign and strong performances in the two televised debates in the next week. “People power beats big money,” Gingrich said after his South Carolina triumph.

The fact that Gingrich got 40 percent of the vote in a four-candidate field in South Carolina suggests he may be emerging as the long-awaited “conservative alternative” to Romney.  However, both Rick Santorum, who finished third, and Ron Paul, who came in fourth, said they’re staying in the race.

On the basis of his impressive showing in South Carolina, Gingrich becomes, at the very least, co-frontrunner with Romney. This is amazing, given that he finished fifth in New Hampshire on January 10, trailing Romney by 30 percentage points.

Gingrich’s victory created an unprecedented situation for Republicans: three contests, three winners. Santorum won Iowa, Romney New Hampshire, Gingrich South Carolina. But the Gingrich win is the most recent and thus the most important. He won not because he is a good debater, he said, but because he “articulates the deepest values of the American people.”

For months—even early last week—Romney led polls in South Carolina. His stunning collapse was abetted by attacks on his business career and taxes in two televised debates. His experience, rather a powerful selling point, has become an albatross.

Yet Romney hasn’t found a way to shake the focus on Bain, his wealth, and how much he pays in taxes. He acts as if neither he nor his advisers expected these issues to surface in the GOP race. Now, if only to displace them as paramount in his campaign, Romney needs an idea that captures how he would deal boldly with the economy, jobs, and debt.

He has plenty of things to choose from. The world’s biggest issue is government debt, and Obama just tacked another $1.2 trillion on the national debt. Though America faces a potential debt crisis, Romney offers very little on this issue.

Since Reagan’s time, supply side economics and tax reform have been Republican dogma. Romney could concentrate on those, instead of his wimpy proposal to cut the tax on dividends and capital gains for households with less than $200,000 in income.

Romney does have a robust initiative on curbing entitlements, the biggest cause of rising debt. It’s been praised by Paul Ryan, the popular Republican policy thinker. But you don’t hear Romney say much about it.

Unless he changes his message, Romney will be lucky to win the GOP nomination. And he’ll fail to inspire an enthusiastic following in the general election against Obama. 

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