Mitt Romney blew into South Carolina on a New Hampshire tailwind and a Republican field that could do no right. But 10 days, two stumbling debates, and a flubbed tax question later, Romney's presidential fortunes ran into a buzz saw named Newt Gingrich.
The former speaker bulldozed the Palmetto State with ferocious debate performances, including back-to-back smackdowns of reporters who had the gall to ask him about things he has said and done in the past. No matter the substance of the questions (including allegations of a request for open marriage from his second wife), Gingrich's anger struck a chord with Palmetto State Republicans, who have searched all year for a conservative brawler who can take the fight to Barack Obama. In Newt Gingrich, Republicans here have found their man.
On Saturday night, Romney refused to drop his compulsively sunny disposition, thanking his supporters for "a great night" and telling them this contest was just one of many they would fight. "We've still got a long way to go and a lot of work to do," he said before putting South Carolina quickly and firmly in his rearview mirror. He then changed the subject to Florida and promised to beat Obama in November by fighting "for every single vote." The question now is how—and whether—Romney will get to November at all.
The first order of business for the former Massachusetts governor has to be finding a way to talk about his work at Bain Capital and to answer fully the question about the tax rate he pays and why it's less than the rest of us. With a Tea Party base obsessed with transparency, Romney's dodges hit a sore nerve with South Carolina conservatives who wanted to know what he was trying to hide. Republicans here also said he's also got to find his fire if he wants to prove he's up to taking on Obama.
A tougher tone from the Massachusetts governor in the last past days may signal he's ready to try. On Friday, Romney pushed back on media calls for his tax returns by asking when Gingrich will release details of the ethics investigation he faced as speaker. On Election Day, Romney doubled down—demanding to know when Gingrich would share details of his recent work for federal mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Hours later, the Romney campaign sent an anniversary cake (notably Tiffany blue) to Gingrich HQ, congratulating them on the 15th anniversary of the House ethics scandal.
But Romney's problems with the Republican base run far deeper than fighting words and fuller answers. Conservatives remain deeply skeptical about his real devotion to their cause after one too many switched positions on everything from abortion rights to health-care reform. Exit polls showed Romney losing big to Gingrich among South Carolina evangelicals, self-described conservatives, veterans, and even married women. Ron Paul won the majority of young voters, while Rick Santorum—not Romney—won among voters who called "a strong moral character" their top criteria. Most crucially, and most worrisome for the Romney campaign, voters who singled out electability as their top criteria chose Gingrich over Romney, and punctured Romney's strongest selling point so far: the air of inevitability that has told Republicans that he would eventually be their nominee.
The good news for Romney is that the primary calendar now sends him into far more friendly, and less evangelical, territory in Florida, Nevada, and Michigan before a return to the Deep South on Super Tuesday. The schedule also signals an end to the retail-heavy early states, where voters want to see, touch, and fall in love with their candidates. Starting with Florida, deep pockets like Romney's start to matter more than a charm offensive like Santorum's or give-'em-hell rallies like those of Newt Gingrich that have reduced Romney to something between a punch line and a punching bag.
But there's bad news on the calendar for Romney, too. At the top of the list: there's another debate on Monday night.