Mitt Romney has been urgently lowering expectations for his performance in Saturday's Republican primary in South Carolina. The reason is not just the usual caution of a front-runner, but also his passionate opponents, who are threatening to make the Republican primary interesting, after Romney appeared to have it sewn up.
Rick Santorum (now the official winner of the Iowa caucus), Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul are hammering away at Romney in South Carolina, each trying his all to blunt the perception of inevitability that surrounds Romney's primary campaign. The verb used by The Washington Post for the former Massachusetts governor seems appropriate. Romney has "scrambled" in the final days before the vote, the paper writes.
Romney, recognizing the trend lines, began to lower expectations about the state’s primary and its effect on the GOP race. “I said from the very beginning South Carolina is an uphill battle for a guy from Massachusetts,” Romney told reporters after a rain-soaked outdoor rally on a muddy farm in Gilbert.
Polls in South Carolina show a race that has changed dramatically in a matter of days. Gingrich has surged, and Romney has slumped. An NBC News/Marist poll released Thursday showed a sharp tightening of the race after Monday’s debate, where Gingrich drew the audience to its feet with a sharp answer about the value of a work ethic.
These fellow candidates were in danger of being written off. And Romney still holds the cards that should make him the winner of the nomination in the end. But how long it takes them to get to that end is a question for his rivals, who bitterly attack his business prowess and question his ability to bring down Barack Obama in a general election. They also, notes Politico, just want it so badly that they're willing to make Romney suffer and work a lot longer than he'd like to win the party nod.
It’s not that they don’t recognize that the odds are stacked against them, or that they’re oblivious to Romney’s strengths. But for Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, the campaign has always been a desperate errand — a windmill-tilting exercise in ignoring the overwhelming conventional wisdom that says that they have no chance.
The result is now a race that forces Romney to keep battling opponents he has vanquished — or thought he vanquished — at other points in the race. And they can keep on fighting him as long as they have the will and money to keep going.
The face-off at the Ham House didn't turn into much, though.
Meanwhile, among South Carolina voters, decisions are still being made. The New York Times found voters who were swayed by the recent television appearance of Gingrich's second wife, who said the former House speaker wanted an open marriage, as well as voters who felt that revelations about the candidate's character gave them more reason to support him. For the voters, commitment issues persist.
“If you could mix them together, then maybe you’d have someone,” said Kelly Burrell, 32, a single mother working at a cellphone cover kiosk in a Spartanburg mall. “Like, if you had a cross between Newt and Ron Paul, maybe with a little Santorum thrown in, we’d be great.”
Ms. Burrell said she was, at least on Friday, leaning toward Mr. Romney as a kind of default.
“But,” she said, “I really don’t know.”
Then there was this, from AFP's Olivier Knox:
Woman 1: "Why are you waving both? (signs for Romney and Newt)" Woman 2: "Because I'm undecided!" #thrillaingreenvilla— Olivier Knox (@OKnox) January 21, 2012