After amassing more votes in New Hampshire than Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum combined, Mitt Romney was hoping his campaign for the nomination would be like Ronald Reagan's.
It might be, but not the one in 1980, when the Gipper glided virtually untouched through the primaries and caucuses after crushing Ambassador George Bush in New Hampshire ("I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!").
Instead, think 1976, when Reagan challenged a sitting, though unelected, president, Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination. Ford beat Reagan in New Hampshire, and was rolling toward the nomination until Reagan, almost broke, won unexpectedly — and decisively — in North Carolina. That swung the momentum toward Reagan, making every primary and caucus a slugfest until the convention in Kansas City.
President Ford barely prevailed, when the Mississippi delegation declared for Ford and Reagan couldn't assemble a majority of delegates, even after naming a liberal northeastern senator, Richard Schweiker from Pennsylvania, as his running mate. It was the last political convention in America with genuine drama about its outcome.
Romney's momentum after New Hampshire was derailed when Newt Gingrich shrewdly calculated that he could win more votes running against ABC and CNN than Romney or Rick Santorum. Opportunity came disguised for Gingrich when ABC's Nightline ran an interview with his embittered second wife just two days before the election, arguing that he is morally unqualified to sit in the Oval Office. CNN led off its debate with it the next day.
One would think that in South Carolina, with it's disproportionately large pool of Christian conservative voters, a charge like that from a former wife of 18 years would stick. Voters there had endured a sordid scandal just a few years ago when Governor Mark Sanford went missing out of the country with his Argentinian mistress. But Gingrich dealt with the issue brilliantly, all but ignoring the accusations, (which were mostly old news), and instead attacking the media for trying to run him out of the race to make life easier for Barack Obama. Instead of asking voters to prefer him to Mitt Romney, he asked them to prefer him to John King. Well played.
Much of the national press still hasn't caught the significance of this. ABC’s Amy Walter did a “South Carolina in 60 seconds” analysis and never once mentioned the backlash against the media in her report. Talk about willful blindness.
So where does that leave Romney? The next Big Test is Florida, Jan. 3t. It's a primary, so that means Ron Paul will probably pick up 10-15 percent of the vote (he does better in caucus states, like Iowa and Washington, which is now seriously in play).
Romney faces four obstacles, each of which he can get around. Thanks to Gingrich, he will be doing this in January rather than next summer.
First, he's gotta run on more than his résumé. He's starting to sound like Elliott Richardson. Yes, we know you've run a successful company. Yes, we know you've governed a state and ran the Olympics. Now, tell voters what you'll do.
Second, release the tax returns. Withholding them implies that they contain information he doesn’t want people to know about. Team Romney got that message; they announced that his returns are coming out on Tuesday. Once released, Romney should stoutly defend them. He will be attacked for "underpaying" his taxes, regardless of how much he paid. But if Warren Buffett, who's constantly kvetching about being undertaxed, doesn’t pay one dime more in taxes than he’s legally obligated to (and he doesn't), why should Mitt Romney? Come to think about it, what American anywhere deliberately overpays their taxes? Average voters would understand – and agree – with that.
Third, Romney has to explain why the company he built, Bain Capital, is good for America. He can't educate millions of busy people about the world of venture and private equity, but he can convey its impact. Here’s how: “The start-up firms and turn-arounds financed by Bain created 10 new jobs for every one lost.” Simple. Clear. Direct. He needs to say it (and back it up) over and over again.
If Romney cited jobs “created or saved” (The Obama standard used to defend the stimulus) that employment ratio would be higher still. The Democrats are certain to run heart tugging ads with decent people bemoaning the loss of their jobs and the shuttering of their local plant because Bain spun off this or that company. The Republicans will need to counter that with ads featuring people — even entire neighborhoods — expressing gratitude and relief for Romney's help. There is no doubt that far more jobs were created than lost because of Romney's work, but he needs to understand that "perception is reality," and the Democrats are no more interested in presenting a balanced picture of Bain than either Gingrich or Rick Perry did last week.
Finally, some Republicans and independents are drifting toward Gingrich because he's a fighter. Romney needs to put up his dukes, with both Gingrich and President Obama. That doesn't mean sounding like Howard Dean in Iowa eight years ago. Ronald Reagan was a tenacious fighter, and he rarely raised his voice. And when Romney drops the resume’ section of his stump speech, he should replace it with one or two Big Ideas that embody what he represents. Average voters can’t wrap their minds around 59-point white papers on economic recovery.
How he handles those four issues will determine the fate of the Romney campaign. In the meantime, we will see in the next week whether Newt can land as many haymakers on Romney as he did last week on John King and George Stephanopoulos.