I can agree with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on one point—if former Gov. Mitt Romney wins in South Carolina on Saturday night, the 2012 Republican presidential primary is essentially over.
A win gives Romney the momentum combined with the media narrative to score a follow-on victory in Florida, where he boasts a significant lead in the polls and his campaign has the money to outspend his rivals all over the state. With wins in three of the first four contests (and no winner at all in the fourth, Iowa), Team Romney would have an easy path to officially capture the requisite number of delegates by spring, even with new GOP primary rules in place designed to stretch out the process. Given that the campaign resources of Romney's rag tag competitors are drying up and that his chief competition (Gingrich and Santorum) failed to qualify for the ballot in Virginia, I'm hard pressed to see any obstacles, other than the candidate himself, in the run up to the convention in Tampa.
The casual political observer might think that Romney's quick-strike Republican nomination grab would leave him well positioned for a tight general election battle with President Obama. Unfortunately Mitt Romney is a little like Tim Robbins's character Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh in Bull Durham—his curve ball is hanging and his campaign doesn't seem to realize it or has yet to figure out how to fix it.
Monday night's raucous debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., demonstrated Romney's inability to hit the "red meat" strike zone. While his rivals served up a steady dose of scorching fastballs for the conservative base and dialed up the occasional brush back for both their rivals and the moderators, Romney hemmed and hawed in an unprepared fashion over releasing his tax returns, resorted to talking too much in an effort to dodge specific questions, and managed to get flustered at all the wrong times.
There is some speculation that when (not if) Romney wins South Carolina he would look to duck future Republican debates. This would be a big mistake, because the more Romney locks horns with Gingrich and company now, the better positioned he will be to debate President Obama in the general election. If Romney doesn't figure out how to respond better under pressure, he'll end up looking like a small varmint caught in the headlights of Team Obama's unrelenting onslaught.
Mitt Romney is also clearly in need of more time to sharpen his campaign message, particularly when it comes to his work at Bain Capital.
As Peter Roff rightfully notes, Romney's record at Bain might be a dead issue for a large swath of the GOP electorate, but it is certainly ripe territory for Team Obama which is looking to portray Romney as a rich white guy who is out of touch with the lives and needs of the average working American. If Romney is unable to mount a more credible defense of his business practices at Bain Capital, Team Obama will have an easy wedge to drive between Romney and the working-class independent voters who will ultimately decide the 2012 election.
Some may think that if Romney has the nomination in hand, he we will work quickly to hone his defense on Bain. While that may seem logical, I have seen what happens in presidential campaigns when they are no longer under the gun and take their foot off the gas, because they think they have time to spare until the general (think 2008 on the GOP side).
Can Romney defeat Obama? Yes. Is Romney ready to compete head-to-head with Obama? No.
I agree with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's call to support Newt Gingrich in the South Carolina primary so that we can "keep this thing going." While Romney is nearly assured of winning his party's nomination, the former Massachusetts governor needs a little more seasoning in the minors before he is ready for the show.