He probably won’t. Recent polls have shown Mitt Romney’s lead in the state has actually been widening, to double-digits.
Still, it’s volatile - and, polls notwithstanding, Romney seems to have entered a bit of a rough patch. Last week brought a slew of questions about his record at Bain. This week it’s the brouhaha over his taxes, putting new attention on just how rich he really is (hint: $375,000 is essentially spare change for him) and raising questions about his investments and just how much money he has given to the Mormon Church. Most important, there’s yet another debate coming up - Thursday night - and Gingrich has shown himself incredibly adept at using these forums to his advantage.
So let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that all this weighs Romney down enough to allow Gingrich to squeak out a win in South Carolina. What would that mean for the race?
Obviously, it would be a real scare for Team Romney. South Carolina is usually the state where the eventual nominee wraps things up - not where they hit a bump in the road. Keep in mind, there’s also growing chatter that Romney may not have won Iowa after all. The Hawkeye state’s official certification is expected to be completed by the end of the week. If the Iowa GOP announces that Rick Santorum was in fact the winner, then Romney’s record could go in one weekend from an expected 3-0 to 1-2, which would take some of the shine off the Romney inevitability narrative.
A Gingrich win would probably also change the shape of the field, by winnowing out one or both Ricks. Certainly, most observers expect South Carolina to be Rick Perry’s last stand. Rick Santorum might persist a while longer, but if he finishes behind both Gingrich and Romney, even after winning the endorsement of a group of prominent social conservative leaders last weekend, it won’t bode well for him. Some of those Rick voters might move over to Romney, of course. But it seems plausible that more would go to Gingrich.
Which means we’d finally have something that looked more like a two-man contest (plus, of course, Ron Paul, who won’t drop out until the end). There would be a slew of stories about how Gingrich consolidated the conservative-populist vote - reinforced by that sort-of endorsement from Sarah Palin - and how Romney was battling an image of being elitist and out of touch.
But that’s also when reality would enter back in. Because the next state to vote is Florida - big, more Romney-friendly, and full of expensive media markets. And while there will be two more debates before the Florida primary, the race will then enter a debate-free month, during which the candidates will be far more reliant on paid media. Here’s the thing: the Romney inevitability argument isn’t just some willful establishment narrative that’s been unfairly repeated by pundits. It’s a reflection of real campaign metrics. Romney’s campaign is so much bigger, richer, and better organized than those of his opponents (many of whom, to take just one example, actually failed to get on the ballot in Virginia) that it’s just plain hard to see how anyone else can compete with him over the long haul. If Romney loses South Carolina, it will hurt. But it will be far from fatal.
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