Going into the crucial South Carolina primary, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is opening up a substantial lead. According to the Gallup Poll out Tuesday, Romney has "climbed to a commanding 23-point lead over his nearest competitor among Republican registered voters nationally." He leads the pack with 37 percent followed by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at 14 percent, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul at 12 percent.
"History suggests that Romney is now the probable favorite to win the Republican nomination," the polling firm said. If this is indeed the case, Romney needs to start honing his message now.
Following the Iowa caucuses Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry launched a frontal attack on Romney's record at Bain Capital, the Boston-based private equity firm he cofounded in 1984. Their attacks closely parrot those used by the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy when beating Romney in their 1994 Senate contest.
Now there are a lot of people on the right who are uncomfortable with this, accusing Gingrich, Perry, and others of using what some conservative commentators have labeled "the language of the left" to attack not just the former governor but the capitalist system itself.
The criticism is not completely without merit.
As Steve Judge, the interim president and CEO of the Private Equity Growth Capital Council writes in Tuesday's USA Today, firms like Bain "take a risk every time they put up their own and their investors' money to buy a company that needs improving. But the vast majority of investments do turn out positively, resulting in stronger companies, more jobs and good investment returns for pensioners." This kind of investment activity, Judge continued, "Epitomizes the entrepreneurial spirit that fuels America's economy. It's the ultimate risk-reward model. If the investment pans out, the firms and their investors make money. If the investment fails, everyone loses."
It is also the very kind of economic activity that most of the GOP tax plans seek to incentivize by, for example, lowering corporate rates and eliminating or at least lowering the tax on capital gains. By increasing the rewards for speculative behavior, these lower rates would generate productive economic activity that will lead to job creation.
As distasteful as these attacks on Bain are, however, Romney's failure to articulate an effective defense against them is equally disheartening. He has, thus far, largely shrugged them off, talking generally about his record as a job creator and making analogies about how his experience living and working in the real economy will make him a better president than Barack Obama.
What Romney needs, starting now, is to mount a robust defense of his record at Bain Capital. The attacks against him now are nothing compared to what Obama and the Democrats, who say they want to raise $1 billion for the general election campaign, will do. They will pick Romney's record apart, personalizing it by featuring people who lost jobs at companies Bain failed to revive and hold it up as a prime example of the kind of Wall Street activity that many voters, rightly or wrongly, blame for the current economic crisis. If he waits until September or October to make his case, it will be too late.