As Impolitic scrambled yesterday to shut down the national affairs desk’s temporary digs at the Fairfield Inn in Manchester, New Hampshire — heaving armfuls of empty gin bottles into double-strength Hefty bags, pouring gallons of stale bong water into the toilet, sweeping up the dozens of Skittles packets discarded by that degenerate fructose addict Mike Barnicle, whose behavior grew so bizarre in the final days before the vote up there that keeping him a safe distance from the Huntsman daughters became an urgent priority — a heretical thought proved too persistent to banish from my brain: Thank freaking God this piece-of-shit primary is over.
Mitt Romney, of course, would take a different view. For him, New Hampshire was nirvana — the place where he cruised to a convincing and historic victory. (No previous nonincumbent Republican presidential candidate has ever won there and in Iowa, as he did last week.) Were Romney designing a fantasy nominating process, every primary would look like the one in the Granite State, where Evangelical voters are thin on the ground, social conservatism has always taken a back seat to the fiscal variety, and the electorate knows him well as both a neighboring-state governor and a part-time resident. But none of these things are true of the next contest site, where Romney arrived last night: South Carolina. And there he will face a scorched-earth campaign that will either leave his front-runnerhood singed or make him his party’s presumptive nominee.
Before turning to South Carolina, however, a few parting words about the halfhearted goat rodeo that was the contest in the state I just departed. In all the cycles when I’ve covered the New Hampshire primary — more than I care to admit — never has the thing been so flaccid and desultory, so much an exercise in electoral trompe l’oeil. With Romney far ahead in the polls, there was precious little suspense apart from the undercard, but that was only part of the problem. The crowds were meager and muted, the candidates at best mediocre and at worst maladroit. There were no sparks, no jolts, no events that will linger in the memory; I mean, WTF, there wasn’t even any snow on the ground. Just how bad was the primary? So bad that even the New Hampshire Union Leader posted an editorial decrying its abject “lameness.”
South Carolina is never lame — more like lacerating and lowdown, vituperative and vicious, and at times even vile. From giving birth to Lee Atwater to the nasty smear campaigns against John McCain in the 2000 Republican primary and the race-freighted explosions in the 2008 Democratic contest, the state’s political culture is at once famously wide open and notoriously dank and dirty. The next nine days are likely to offer more of the same, if for no other reason than the increasing desperation of Romney’s rivals, for all of whom South Carolina may be effectively a last stand.
Coming out of New Hampshire, it appeared that the main event would be a full-frontal assault on Romney’s business record, which heretofore had been seen as his greatest political asset. Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, who together had been leading the vulture-capital critique of Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital, both now seem uncertain about how far and hard to press that case, perhaps stung by the barrage of criticism aimed at them by Establishment GOPers and noxious right-wing gasbags alike for engaging in anti-capitalist heresies and giving aid and comfort to Barack Obama. Yet Perry seems disinclined to drop the matter entirely. And while Gingrich is now suggesting his broadsides against Romney as a corporate raider will be secondary to those on social issues, the super-PAC supporting him, Winning Our Future, is up on the air in South Carolina with a 30-second spot based on its scathing, half-hour “King of Bain” video, part of a big-time $3.4 million ad buy in the state.
The presumption behind this line of attack is that South Carolina — and Florida and Nevada, the sites of the following two contests — will prove more fertile ground for such appeals than Iowa or New Hampshire. And, no doubt, the economic situation in the first-in-the-South primary state is grim, with an unemployment rate of 9.9 percent, a manufacturing base that has shrunken by a third in the past decade, and a landscape dotted with empty storefronts and shuttered mills. (For the record, the jobless rates in Iowa and New Hampshire are 5.7 and 5.2 percent, respectively; in Florida, 10 percent, and in Nevada, a whopping 13 percent.)
It’s worth keeping in mind, however, that South Carolina, for all its economic woes, is also steadfastly business-friendly, with lax labor laws, a sharp anti-union bias, and a strong and stable pro-corporate culture in the I-85 corridor that runs from Atlanta to Charlotte, North Carolina, and includes the bustling Greenville-Spartanburg-Anderson metro area. (The corporate presence here includes BMW, Bausch & Lomb, Microsoft, Michelin, and IBM.) It’s also worth pointing out that, for all the attention paid to the populist tenor of South Carolina’s politics and the heavy Evangelical composition (upwards of 60 percent) of its Republican electorate, the state has reliably sided with Establishment candidates in the primary. In 1996, it chose Bob Dole over Pat Buchanan; in 2000, George W. Bush over John McCain; and in 2008, McCain over Mike Huckabee. All of which, it should go without saying, augurs well for Willard.
But what about the tea party, you say? Isn’t South Carolina the unofficial capital of the movement? Yes, it is, with five of the state’s six congressional districts filled by Republicans who dig their Darjeeling and one of its Senate seats occupied by the tea party poster boy Jim DeMint. But in the past two days, DeMint has rushed to Romney’s side, predicting that he will win the primary, criticizing Gingrich and Perry for their attacks on Bain, and declining to endorse any of Romney’s rivals (a prize that both Gingrich and Santorum have been quietly but aggressively seeking).
More to the point, the belief that an anti-business message appeals to tea partiers is rooted in a misunderstanding of the movement. “Criticizing Bain did for Mitt what he couldn’t do for himself — converted him from a flip flopping political opportunist to a proud, ruthless creator and destroyer of companies and men,” notes a savvy progressive organizer of my acquaintance. “That’s a feature, not a bug for tea party folks, the vast majority of whom are not wage workers like the ones who got laid off. As Theda Skocpol observes, the tea party is composed mainly of small business owners, retirees, military families, and women who don’t work — not a laid off steel worker among them.”
None of which is to suggest that Romney has nothing to worry about in South Carolina. Having been caught off-guard by the from-the-right critique of his Bain bona fides, the hard guys in Boston are fighting back with both fists, launching at once a counteroffensive and a counter-attack against Gingrich (by means of the same super-PAC that destroyed the speaker in Iowa.) The Romney people understand the risks of having their guy’s business background dragged through an enormous pile of Palmetto swamp mud. They can also read the polls, which show Gingrich now within single-digit striking distance of Romney in South Carolina.
Romney, however, has an array of assets to deploy in this fight — from a vast war chest (N.B. his $24 million fund-raising haul in the final quarter of 2011) to the rallying around him of the Republican Establishment to the continued fragmentation of the field owing to the (insane) refusal of any of his more conservative challengers to leave the race. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Romney is one lucky dude. And he and (especially) his team have also been good, far better than some expected. The only question remaining about the man is whether he can take a punch. On January 21, we’ll know the answer — and if it’s yes, we’ll also all but certainly know the identity of the next Republican nominee for president.