Even if he cruises to victory, the Granite State has shown that the frontrunner isn't as invulnerable as he once appeared.
Even a first-ever sweep of Iowa and New Hampshire would be a tempered victory for Mitt Romney. This past week exposed his existential vulnerability: Romney is easily cast as a cold-hearted phony.
The caricature isn't new or entirely fair, but the GOP presidential front-runner gave his desperate rivals fresh ammunition: Romney said he liked being able to "fire people who provide services to me;" he claimed to have once worried about being laid off; he suggested that it's best to get rich before running for president; and he seemed to stretch the truth about attack ads and about his motives for leaving the Massachusetts governor's office.
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"Could we drop ... this pious baloney?" former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told Romney in a debate on Sunday, a quote that will forever reside in the annals of political put-downs. "Just level with the American people."
Romney came to New Hampshire on a glide path to the GOP nomination. He narrowly won Iowa's caucuses, which are dominated by social conservatives, and led the field by more than 20 points in the Granite State, where he is well-known as a two-time presidential candidate and a former governor of neighboring Massachusetts.
Election-eve polls suggested that Romney could win New Hampshire by a 2-to-1 margin, which would make him in the first nonincumbent GOP presidential candidate to win both the modern-day Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire's primary. Those two states have drastically different voting demographics that, taken together, reflect the broad Republican Party coalition a candidate needs to win the nomination.
All else equal, South Carolina should be a romp, given Romney's momentum, organizational might, and establishment credentials. But thanks to his ham-handed New Hampshire campaign, there are doubts.
Many, many doubts. While he is still by far the most likely GOP nominee, Romney and his rivals made President Obama's road to reelection a bit less challenging. Here's how:
- His first post-Iowa event featured two-time New Hampshire winner John McCain, a favorite of independents who can vote in the GOP primary. It was a disappointment: In front of a sparse crowd, McCain told recycled jokes and looked uncomfortable touting the candidacy of a man whohe branded as a liberal phony in 2008 GOP nominating fight. In that race, Romney was portrayed as a man of privilege and little principle, a serial flip-flopper.
- In a debate on Sunday, Romney said he chose not to run for a second term as governor in 2006 because a reelection bid would be "about me" and that he wanted to return to the private sector. The reality is that he left office to run for president in 2008 unencumbered by a governor's liabilities. Despite a successful business career, Romney is not exactly the citizen-politician he portrays himself to be.
- In the same debate, Romney said he hadn't seen negative ads aired by a political action committee that supports his candidacy. He then said he had seen one and recounted the charged made against Gingrich.
- He quoted his father (a former Michigan governor) as saying, "Never get involved in politics if you have to win an election to pay a mortgage." The remark not only seemed to disqualify middle-class Americans from running for office, it underscored impressions that he is wealthy and out of touch. In an earlier debate, Romney dared Texas Gov. Rick Perry to take a $10,000 bet on a political dispute.
- Attempting to show empathy, Romney said he recalls being worried about receiving a pink slip. But the campaign struggled to explain when and why the son of a CEO-turned-governor -- a Harvard graduate -- feared for his job. "I have no doubt that Mitt Romney was worried about pink slips," Perry quipped, "whether he was going to have enough" for all the people he laid off.
- On Monday, Romney argued in favor of giving voters more power over their health insurance, echoing conservative talking points in criticism of President Obama's health care reforms. "It also means that if you don't like what they do, you can fire them," Romney said of insurance companies. "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me." Taken out of context, this is Romney as Gordon Gekko, the ruthless anti-hero of the 1987 film Wall Street. His GOP rivals and Obama's team pounced on the quote because it so conveniently fit the Romney stereotype. The Democratic National Committee released a video titled "Mitt Romney Likes Firing People."
- The "Bain bomb" exploded. A political action committee backing Gingrich plans to flood South Carolina airwaves with ads claiming that Romney, as head of Bain Capital, looted companies and laid off employees. Romney also stands accused of exaggerating his success at the respected venture-capital firm. "Where did the money go?" Gingrich asked of Bain. "Who got the money? What happened to the people involved?"
The devastating attack so closely mirrored Obama's general-election strategy that some conservative pundits were suggesting that Gingrich back off. "I've known Newt Gingrich since 1994," Laura Ingraham was quoted as saying by Slate's David Weigel. "I've never heard Newt make a speech about predatory practices."
"Newt is using the language of the Left in going after Romney on Bain Capital," Rush Limbaugh said. "That makes me uncomfortable."
Romney said it's odd to hear a GOP candidate attacking capitalism, and he defended Bain's job-creating successes, both fair points. But his defense of the "fire people" quote is more complicated.
First, he's correct to say that the quote was taken out of context. But it's hard to have sympathy for a man who aired an ad that unapologetically took an Obama quote out of context to make it appear like the president had said, "If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose."
Second, Romney's explanation of the "firing" quote exacerbated the damage. He dismissed the suggestion that "I should spend my entire campaign carefully choosing how everything I say relates to people."
Right, you wouldn't want a president who chooses his words carefully and tries to relate to people. After months of running the best presidential campaign of the cycle, one week in New Hampshire brought out Romney's worst.
Image: Win McNamee / Getty Images
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