In this up and down year, last night’s South Carolina GOP debate turned the political world upside down again.
Going into the debate, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney had every reason to believe that he was within days of locking up the nomination. He had won (if just barely) the Iowa caucuses and more convincingly the New Hampshire primary. A win in South Carolina this coming Saturday would help cement his lead in Florida, the next state to vote. Running the early-state table would almost certainly result in a collapse of the other major campaigns. The game would be over just as it began.
Now it is not such a sure bet. For one thing, as early as today Iowa will certify its final tally. You’ve no doubt heard the rumors by now that, as of Monday afternoon, Santorum had pulled ahead of Mitt. No one is ready to say the lead won’t shift again as the last counties report, and whatever the outcome, the margin will surely remain a sliver. But at this hour (shortly after midnight) there is a reasonable chance that Santorum will pick up Iowa bragging rights, and Romney will not be able to claim a historic win in the first two states.
After last night, South Carolina can be considered up for grabs, too. It is not that Romney had a poor debate. I thought he was splendid, his best performance yet, and not by accident. Beginning a couple of debates ago, he started to articulate a genuine vision of the nation and its future, a major advance in how he presented himself and his case. His election night victory speech in New Hampshire built on this new sense of compass and left me, at least feeling confident he would be a highly effective standard bearer in the fall.
Add on top of that the damage that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s assaults on Romney have been doing to Gingrich himself. Throughout the week in which the Gingrich camp’s ads against Bain Capital (the private equity firm Romney founded) were running, Republicans of all persuasions had been recoiling. Whether they can find the words for it or not, nearly all Republicans understand the distinction between profit and rents. Profit is when you run a business that brings in more than it spends, and does this by careful management and giving customers what they need and want. Rents are when you make your money by getting government to rig the game.
The anger at Wall Street (at least in conservative circles) in the wake of the financial crisis comes from a widespread belief that the profits the great financial houses claimed in recent years were really rents, the result of a government manipulated game that, as the saying went, socialized losses and privatized gains. We can debate the justice of the indictment, but no one believes Mitt Romney played in markets where the cards were stacked in his favor. And last night he was, I thought, entirely convincing going through the investments Bain Capital had made, showing, for example, that under his management the firm had invested in a number of steel mills, at least one of which they turned into a success.
You know that in most of the Republican Party, the governor’s readiness to take financial risk to revive a basic American manufacturing industry is seen as a plus. Gingrich’s attacks put the former speaker on the wrong side of that discussion and, as Bush 43 chief White House speechwriter Marc Thiessen wrote in the Washington Post yesterday (see http://tiny.cc/848wj), were rapidly sinking Gingrich’s candidacy.
But that was before last night.
What can you say when a debater brings the audience in the hall to its feet cheering? Again and again, you felt that Gingrich had got to the heart of an issue, seized the initiative, and driven home a point in a way that spoke of knowledge, originality, a clear sense of enduring values and passion.
Everywhere you turn, you hear Republicans weighing which candidate will be best able defeat the president in the general election debates. With Mr. Obama having a billion dollars at his command (and his Super Pacs almost surely deploying another billion), face-to-face matches may not play as big a role in the fall campaign as they are now. Still, almost weekly rehearsal has made this entire field so strong in debate (and, yes, by now this includes Texas governor Rick Perry) that any one of them is likely to be strong against the president.
And yet, last night Gingrich stood out – way out. If he closes the gap between him and Governor Romney by Saturday, a big share of the credit will go to two hours on a stage in Myrtle Beach on Monday night.