Can Mitt Romney stop Newt-mentum in South Carolina?

With polls showing that Newt Gingrich might be making up ground in South Carolina, Mitt Romney launched an three-pronged assault Wednesday that painted Gingrich as unreliable.   

Jim Young/REUTERS
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign rally at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., Wednesday.

Mitt Romney is going in for the kill.

Amid signs that Newt Gingrich has momentum heading into Saturday’s primary in South Carolina, Mr. Romney unloaded on the former House speaker Wednesday. He released two web ads critical of Mr. Gingrich, put two surrogates on a conference call with the press focused on his “record as an unreliable leader,” and ridiculed Gingrich himself for claiming to have helped create millions of jobs as a relatively new member of Congress.

Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, leads in polls of South Carolina Republicans, but Gingrich has been closing the gap. In two out of three major polls released Wednesday, Gingrich polled within the margin of error. Romney’s stumbles in Monday night’s debate, combined with Gingrich’s strong performance, have given the former speaker hope that he can stage a comeback.

Gingrich’s biggest challenge with South Carolina Republicans is that he splits the conservative vote with other candidates, particularly religious conservative favorite Rick Santorum.

Enter Team Romney. In the first web ad, called “Undisciplined,” former Rep. Susan Molinari (R) of New York had nothing kind to say about her former colleague.   

“The last time Newt Gingrich was the head of the Republican Party as speaker, he became so controversial, he helped reelect a Democratic president,” said Ms. Molinari, describing Gingrich’s style as “leadership by chaos.”

The second ad, called “Unreliable Leader,” features former Sen. Jim Talent, who also served in the House with Gingrich.

“He would make outrageous comments that would blindside us and undermine our conservative agenda,” Mr. Talent said.

The Romney campaign put both Molinari and Talent on a conference call Wednesday to drive home the message. Both elaborated on Gingrich’s four years as speaker, which they said undermined the conservative movement by putting the focus on him and his erratic style.

It was that “leadership by chaos” that led his fellow Republicans to oust him from the speakership, the two said.

“He had become the issue,” said Talent.

In a campaign appearance Wednesday at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., Romney himself zeroed in on Gingrich’s claim that he had worked with the Reagan administration to create millions of jobs.

"Well, he'd been in Congress two years when Ronald Reagan came to office,” Romney said, according to the Huffington Post. “That'd be like saying 435 congressmen were all responsible for those jobs. Government doesn't create jobs. It's the private sector that creates jobs. Congressmen taking credit for helping create jobs is like Al Gore taking credit for creating the Internet."

If Romney is able to pull off a victory in South Carolina on Saturday, he will be well-positioned to win the Republican nomination.

As a native of Michigan, long-time resident of Massachusetts, and a Mormon, Romney isn’t a natural fit for South Carolina, where nearly 60 percent of GOP primary voters are evangelical. But he brings a greater aura of electability than the other Republican candidates.

If Romney can win an unprecedented trifecta in the first three nominating contests, that should effectively freeze significant fundraising ability for any of the other candidates except Ron Paul. Congressman Paul of Texas has a loyal, libertarian-leaning following, but he has a ceiling on his support that makes winning the nomination nearly impossible.

There is, however, one caveat on Romney’s potential for a trifecta. Romney beat Rick Santorum in the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3 by only eight votes. On Thursday morning, the Iowa Republican Party will release the certified vote totals, which could end up putting former Senator Santorum in the lead.

But even if that happens, Romney will have come so close to victory in Iowa, after barely competing there, that he still will get credit for a strong finish.

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