Yet the Democratic tussle in 2008, which featured two undisputed heavyweights with few ideological discrepancies between them, may be an exception that proves the rule. Certainly Republican history suggests as much: Think of 1964 and the scrap between the forces aligned with Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller, or 1976, between backers of Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. On both occasions, the result was identical: a party disunited, a nominee debilitated, a general election down the crapper.
With such precedents in mind, many Republicans are already looking past 2012. If either Romney or Santorum gains the nomination and then falls before Obama, flubbing an election that just months ago seemed eminently winnable, it will unleash a GOP apocalypse on November 7—followed by an epic struggle between the regulars and red-hots to refashion the party. And make no mistake: A loss is what the GOP’s political class now expects. “Six months before this thing got going, every Republican I know was saying, ‘We’re gonna win, we’re gonna beat Obama,’ ” says former Reagan strategist Ed Rollins. “Now even those who’ve endorsed Romney say, ‘My God, what a fucking mess.’ ”
Should Romney ultimately fail to become the Republican standard-bearer, history will record with precision the day the wheels came off the wagon—January 19. Until that morning, his march to the nomination was proceeding even more smoothly than he and his advisers had hoped. The apparent eight-vote win in Iowa. The landslide in New Hampshire. And then the double-digit leads in South Carolina polling, positioning him to pull off a historic early-state trifecta. But in the space of a few hours, Romney was serially (and surreally) battered by unwelcome events: three tracking polls putting him behind Gingrich for the first time in 2012; word from Iowa that his victory there was being snatched away and handed to Santorum; Rick Perry’s exit from the race and endorsement of Gingrich; and Newt’s masterly mau-mauing of CNN’s John King at a debate in Charleston over a (foolish, inartful, walking-blithely-into-a-buzzsaw) question about accusations by Gingrich’s second wife that he’d sought an “open marriage.”
By the next morning, it was evident that Romney was on his way to defeat in South Carolina, though few would have forecast the scale of the drubbing to come. In truth, any expectations Romney would win there were always overblown. His long-standing weakness with Evangelical voters was always likely to make him a hard sell to an electorate in which nearly two thirds self-identify as born-again. And that, in turn, led Team Romney to devote few resources to the state. “They had no real structure in South Carolina—none, nada,” says Jon Huntsman’s former chief strategist, John Weaver. “They ended up with a few figurehead endorsements and some late hires, but they had nothing on the ground.”
But South Carolina also laid bare weaknesses in Romney’s candidacy, some already well known, others brand spanking new—and devastating to the core rationale behind his campaign. All through 2011, Romney had focused laserlike on the economy, arguing that his private-sector background made him best suited to tackle Obama on the election’s central issue. Sure, Romney inspired little passion in the Republican base; but his rivals were clueless, cartoonish, or crackers, and with the GOP intent above all on ousting the incumbent, the presumption was that Romney’s combination of experience and presidential bearing would conquer all. “The Romney folks faced a fork in the road between the electable route and the ideological route,” says the manager of a previous Republican presidential campaign. “And they decided to go all-in on electability.”
Romney and his people never expected, however, to be confronted in the Republican phase of the race with a raft of challenges related to the legitimacy of his wealth. But first on his record at Bain Capital and then on his tax returns, that is what occurred. With Gingrich and Perry sounding more like commenters on Daily Kos than Republicans, Romney coughed up a remarkable collection of gaffes: from his fear of pink slips to his enjoyment of firing people to his “not very much” in speaker’s fees (when they totaled $374,327 last year).
For many Republicans, Romney’s maladroitness in addressing the issues at hand was worrisome, to put it mildly. Here he was handing Obama’s people a blooper reel that would let them paint him as a hybrid of Gordon Gekko and Thurston Howell III. “Republicans were saying, ‘This is the guy who’s gonna be carrying the ball for our side, defending the private sector?’ ” Rollins says incredulously. “Warren Buffett would kick his ass in a debate, let alone Obama.”
Nor were Romney’s rehearsed turns on the hustings appreciably better. From Iowa through New Hampshire, his campaign events had been progressively pared back and whittled down. By the time he reached South Carolina, they had achieved a certain purity—the purity of the null set. The climactic moment in them came when Romney would recite (and offer attendant textual analysis that would make Stanley Fish beat his head against a wall) the lyrics of “America the Beautiful.” Even staunch Romney allies were abashed by this sadly persistent, and persistently sad, rhetorical trope. “I have never seen anything more ridiculous or belittling,” a prominent Romney fund-raiser says.