Three days before the South Carolina Republican primary, the press corps is poised to declare the GOP race over. If Mitt Romney follows up his wins in Iowa and New Hampshire with a win in the South, the media will tell Republicans in the other 47 states that there’s no need for them to cast votes in a democratic fashion, Romney’s coronation being inevitable.
Of course, the press’s portrayal is hardly the only way that these events could be reported. Romney won in Iowa — if, in fact, he actually did win in Iowa — with less than 25 percent of the vote and by a smaller margin than might typically decide a Rotary Club or homeowners association election. He then won a convincing plurality (not a majority, not even 40 percent) of the vote in New Hampshire, where he’s been campaigning for years, where he owns a house, and where his home state of Massachusetts lies just across the border. If he wins in South Carolina, that would clearly be a good win for him. But it would also be his first win in a Republican-leaning state, it would at least partly be attributable to his momentum going in, and it would again be without anything approaching a majority of the vote. Would this be evidence of a juggernaut?
Indeed, there’s something ludicrous about claiming that a candidate who wins perhaps a third of the vote in three states that together account for 3 percent of the U.S. population, is the inevitable winner in a nationwide race. And there’s something particularly disturbing about having such a premature claim be applied to a contest that will decide who represents the Republican party in what is likely the most important election since the Civil War.
Ludicrous or not, however, that’s how the press will report on the state of the race if Romney wins in South Carolina. But if Newt Gingrich, Romney’s most formidable challenger in the Palmetto State, wins instead, the result would be very different. Gingrich would then be well positioned to challenge Romney for weeks if not months to come, with or without a win in the follow-on primary in Florida. This would be true for the simple reasons that Romney could no longer plausibly be portrayed as invincible, and because any subsequent winnowing of the field would help consolidate the conservative vote, potentially to Gingrich’s benefit.
However, if Gingrich wins in South Carolina, he would hardly be the only candidate to benefit. Rather, a win there by the former speaker would help keep alive or advance opportunities for everyone else in the GOP field.
Rick Santorum has shown himself to be capable of making a compelling economic pitch to which President Obama might have a hard time responding — one that focuses on the plight of small businesses and on America’s shrinking manufacturing sector, both of which are struggling under this administration’s burdensome tax and regulatory policies. He also recently won the endorsement of a national convention of socially conservative Christian leaders. Moreover, he has displayed impressive knowledge and well-reasoned thinking on a variety of issues in debates. A Gingrich win in South Carolina would buy Santorum — probably the least well-known of any of the remaining candidates coming into this race — more time to capitalize on these considerable strengths, free of the handicap of trying to be heard over the press’s insistence that no one should be listening anymore.
Sure, it would also put Santorum a bit behind Gingrich in the race to be “the anti-Romney.” But if Romney beats Gingrich in South Carolina, the media will say that there is no more race to be “the anti-Romney”; there’s only Romney. Besides, does anyone really think that Santorum (who beat Gingrich in Iowa and New Hampshire) couldn’t potentially win people over further down the line, in states that don’t border Gingrich’s home state of Georgia? Or that Gingrich couldn’t subsequently implode?
Likewise, a Gingrich win in South Carolina could help Ron Paul. The more people stay attuned to the race, the more Paul will have a meaningful platform from which to advance his message of fiscal restraint, sound money, and the need to pursue peace, love, and harmony with a nuclear Iran.
Additionally, with the Republican field having been whittled down to a much more manageable five candidates (which could soon become four, depending on whether Rick Perry stays in after South Carolina), the candidates now have the chance to engage in more substantial examinations of issues, ideas, and each other’s credentials. Having withstood an abundance of 8-candidate debates with 30-second answers just to get to this point, it would be a shame for the GOP to stop staging debates right when they’ve started to get good. Indeed, the party would benefit greatly from having many more debates among this smaller field, as the candidates now have the chance to give somewhat longer, more substantial answers and engage in more give and take. A party of ideas shouldn’t be afraid of such an opportunity but rather should welcome it. Again, a Gingrich win in South Carolina would facilitate this.
Of course, the more risk-averse elements in the Romney campaign would rather avoid such debates, put to rest any thought of Romney’s not prevailing in the Republican race, and simply move on to the general election campaign. But, in truth (and while competing to the fullest), Romney should actually welcome additional chances to hone his skills at this level. After all, if he isn’t confident that he can beat Newt Gingrich without a Mike Tyson-style early round knockout — secured mostly through a huge advantage in cash and a resulting barrage of negative advertising in Iowa — then what chance does he really have of beating Obama? Forget Tyson: Romney needs to be training for a “Thrilla in Manila”-like bout with Obama. He needs to be prepared to go 14 or 15 rounds — or, at the least, 7 or 8. And no sparring partner in his own gym would hit nearly as hard as Gingrich.
For a party that (rightly) sings the praises of competition at nearly every turn, Republicans can be strangely blind to its virtues in our politics. Is Romney a better candidate now than he was in the summer? Indisputably, he is. Would he be an even better candidate this coming summer if he doesn’t have the luxury of merely coasting along for the next several months? Yes, he would be.
Whatever one thinks of the attacks on Romney’s management at Bain Capital, Romney still hasn’t provided particularly compelling answers to those questions. (Merely having Republicans respond in outrage against “an attack on capitalism” won’t suffice versus Obama.) Likewise, he still hasn’t given a convincing answer as to why he so dislikes Obamacare yet is so proud of Romneycare, which Obama will say is Obamacare’s prototype. A few more months of doing battle with Gingrich and Santorum would surely help the GOP frontrunner hone his answers to these and other questions, leaving him a more formidable — and more philosophically tenable — general election candidate.
And (in the spirit of competition) if he’s not up to the task, better to know now. As Perry said to Romney in Monday night’s debate (Perry was referring to Romney’s refusal to release his tax returns, but the comment applies more broadly): “We cannot fire our nominee in September. We need to know now.” Indeed, we do. And that requires Republican voters — starting with South Carolina’s Republican voters — not to let the Obama-friendly press short-circuit the race for the GOP nomination.
If South Carolinians back Newt Gingrich, thereby exemplifying the independent spirit for which they’ve been famous since at least the days of Andrew Jackson — rather than merely rubber-stamping the verdicts of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire — everyone will benefit. Everyone, that is, except for Obama.