Myrtle Beach, S.C.
An hour before the Republican presidential debate started on January 16, a relaxed Mitt Romney strode confidently behind the scenes at the cavernous convention center, past an empty concession stand, stepping over the thick cables alongside the bustling Fox News workspace to get his makeup for the big event. Hands in his pockets and wearing a suit without a tie, Romney smiled as he chatted with three of his top advisers—Eric Fehrnstrom, Ben Ginsberg, and Stuart Stevens. If Romney looked like a man without a care in the world, who could blame him? He had won the first two contests of the 2012 presidential campaign—narrowly in Iowa and comfortably in New Hampshire. And with a double-digit lead in the RealClearPolitics average of polls, he appeared to be coasting to a win in South Carolina five days later, a conservative state where he had come in fourth, with just 15 percent of the vote, in 2008.
The only potential hurdles were two debates—the one in Myrtle Beach that night and another in Charleston on Thursday. But Romney had acquitted himself well in the 17 previous Republican debates, turning in performances that ranged from solid to the very strong effort he put in at the ABC News debate just a week earlier in Manchester, N.H. He was on a glide path to the nomination.
Then came the wildest week of a crazy race. Newt Gingrich dominated the first debate with what might have been the best night of any candidate in any debate this cycle—a performance that included a defiant challenge of the news media (again), an impassioned critique of Romney, and a rousing defense of conservatism that won him a standing ovation from the enthusiastic crowd.
Not only was Gingrich good, Romney struggled. He was not as sharp as he’d been in most other debates and stumbled badly over a question about his tax returns. He compounded that mistake with a comment the next day—declaring that his $374,000 in earnings from speeches last year was “not very much”—and an uneven performance in the debate Thursday when he responded to a question about whether he’d release tax returns for several years, as his father had in 1967, with a snippy “maybe.” Gingrich, by contrast, turned in another good debate that he kicked off by blasting CNN moderator John King for opening the debate with a question about claims made by his ex-wife Marianne. Rick Perry, meanwhile, dropped out of the race and endorsed Gingrich, and the Iowa Republican party belatedly declared that Romney had not, in fact, won the Iowa caucuses, but trailed Rick Santorum by 34 votes after the certification process in that state. By the end of Romney’s very bad week his 10-point lead in South Carolina polls had been erased, and Gingrich, counted out of the race twice, appeared to be surging once again. In the spin room after Thursday’s debate, Stuart Stevens was downplaying Romney’s prospects in the Palmetto state.
“Do I think we could lose South Carolina?” he asked, repeating a question posed to him by one of a dozen reporters crowded around him. “Sure. Of course.” He insisted that reporters were framing the issue incorrectly. “The idea should be: Does he have a chance in South Carolina?”
Well, maybe. But even as Romney had climbed to a lead in statewide polls in South Carolina, his campaign saw the possibility of a win here as a bonus, not a necessity—in large part because of his aides’ confidence about Florida. Romney has been looking at Florida as a potential firewall since the beginning of his candidacy. He was a regular visitor to the state long before the race began in earnest, including a three-stop campaign swing with Marco Rubio a month before Rubio was elected to the Senate.
In Florida, Romney has been endorsed by most of the GOP’s statewide officeholders, many members of its congressional delegation, and large segments of the state legislature. He has five paid staffers in the state, and the campaign has been operating phone banks almost daily since September. On several occasions after long days of campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire, Romney set aside time to conduct tele-town halls with Florida voters—tens of thousands at a time—answering their questions and urging them to vote in the primary on January 31, or earlier.
The Romney campaign hasn’t been relying just on the candidate to encourage voters to cast their ballots early. Since mid-December, it has been on an “absentee chase”—aggressively reaching out to a list of more than 400,000 Florida voters who have signed up to receive absentee ballots automatically. Those voters have received mail, phone calls, and in many cases personal visits to persuade them to vote early and to vote for Romney. By late last week, more than 150,000 of them had cast ballots—a figure that almost certainly translates into a major advantage for Romney.
For one thing, Romney has been leading in Florida polls by some 20 points over the course of the early voting efforts, meaning a built-in lead if the support of actual voters mirrors those polls. And Romney advisers believe that the fact that those early voters have gotten disproportionate attention from their campaign means that margin is likely much larger. One Romney adviser told me that it’s possible Romney will be halfway toward meeting his total vote goal before polls open on January 31.
All of this early voting has taken place while Romney has had Florida airwaves virtually to himself. He has been advertising heavily in all 10 of Florida’s major media markets, using three English-language ads and one in Spanish. The first Romney ad went up in the state on January 3—the date of the Iowa caucuses—meaning that Romney will have been on the air in Florida for nearly a month by the time polls open. The English-language ads include a short biographical sketch, an ad that highlights the moral responsibility of addressing the national debt, and another touting Romney’s business record. The Spanish-language ad, narrated by Romney’s son Craig, touts his support in the Cuban-American community.
Even with these substantial advantages, the events of the past week have changed the race. Gingrich had been saying that South Carolina would end his campaign if he didn’t win there. “If Romney can win South Carolina, he’s probably going to be the nominee. This is his big test,” Gingrich told NBC’s Chuck Todd on January 11. “He has so much money that if he also has the advantage of momentum, it’s going to be very hard to stop him.”
By week’s end he had abandoned that tack entirely. On January 20, top Gingrich adviser Kevin Kellems told The Weekly Standard that his candidate plans to stay in the race through the convention regardless of the outcome in South Carolina. “He believes he is emerging as the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney and that Governor Romney’s campaign is showing real signs of being off-balance and nervous, and there must be a reason for it,” said Kellems. “Newt doesn’t think in terms of absolute marks on the primary calendar—he thinks in terms of why his bold conservative approach can eventually prevail over a timid moderate.” A week is an eternity in a presidential campaign—especially last week.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.