I happened to be in Columbia, S.C., the week before the Republican primary. It was 70 degrees and sunny at noon. I ate all my favorite southern comfort foods: mustard-based barbecue, chicken gumbo, collard greens, grits with shrimp gravy, dirty rice and Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
In the local newspapers, I read about how, early in her term, Gov. Nikki Haley got entangled in a controversy over requiring state workers to answer their phones by saying “It’s a great day in South Carolina; how can I help you?” The papers also reported her saying more recently, in response to the National Labor Relations Board’s attempt to prevent Boeing from opening a factory there, that South Carolina did not need or want labor unions because it takes care of its own.
Meanwhile, the roller-coaster ride Republican primary roiled around me. I kept looking for the Colbert campaign. South Carolina’s native son had tried to buy the naming rights to first the Republican and then the Democratic primaries. Then, so that he could run himself, Colbert transferred his SuperPAC, The Committee for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, to fellow funnyman Jon Stewart. The PAC supposedly ran an ad calling Mitt Romney a serial killer, but I never saw it.
Before I arrived, Romney had won the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, and he was ahead in South Carolina. Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry had begun to attack him as a “vulture” capitalist. That prompted dismay in the Republican establishment, amusement in the pundits, and glee among Democrats. The Republican establishment rallied around Romney with mixed effect.
The day I arrived, Gingrich, Perry, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum attended a right-to-life forum, where each professed their belief (Santorum, his certainty) that life begins at conception. Romney was absent due to a conflict.
While I was there, the Gingrich campaign was revitalized by an infusion of millions into his PAC. The newspapers and airwaves were filled with campaign ads, many paid for by PACs, attacking the candidates: Gingrich as an unreliable historian/consultant/lobbyist who says a lot of things, many of them contradictory; Romney as an unprincipled, pink-slip profiteer. The press estimated that the average Columbia TV viewer was likely to see nearly 200 political ads by the time they voted.
Romney uneasily revealed that his tax rate is 15 percent, which alienated those of more modest means who pay more. Gingrich crowed that he paid a million dollars in taxes. Iowa recounted its results to the point where Santorum was ahead by 38 votes, and then declared its caucuses a tie. John Huntsman dropped out and threw his 1 percent to Romney. Perry dropped out and endorsed Gingrich. Sarah Palin popped up and did the same. There were rumors that Herman Cain had reappeared.
Gingrich’s second wife, Marianne, went on TV and revealed that he had asked her for an open marriage so that he could cavort with his committee staffer-girlfriend while impeaching President Clinton. Philandering former Gov. Mark Sanford’s wife Jenny said she couldn’t support Newt because of the way he handled his personal life. When CNN’s John King asked about the matter at the outset of the following debate, Gingrich turned it to his advantage by getting outraged at the media.
The president was so tickled by these developments that he was singing at the Apollo.
I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.
The primary is supposed to produce the best candidate for the general election and give them some practice for the main event. It is not supposed to be a circular firing squad that mortally wounds the nominee.
In the end, South Carolina Republicans could not bring themselves to embrace a wealthy, Harvard-educated, relatively moderate, Michigan-Massachusetts Mormon who is a bit standoffish. The primary of a million debates played to Gingrich’s strength. The former House speaker from Georgia pulled out a back-from-the-dead, come-from-behind win and vowed to fight to the end.
The result turned a race that had seemed ready for Romney to secure the nomination into one in which each of the top three candidates had one win apiece, and the intra-party warfare continues. That was unfortunate because Republicans’ best chance to win the White House is to come together around a nominee sooner than later.
The domestic economy is weak and fragile. Unemployment is high. Many Americans have serious misgivings about the president’s policies and programs, foremost among them health-care reform and deficit spending. But hitting the reset button with a regressive Russia seems unwise. And our inconsistent response to the signs of Arab spring in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Iran and Syria aren’t reassuring, either.
The White House is winnable. Mitt Romney is the strongest Republican challenger for the general election. He is smart, well-educated, a gentleman and a family man. He has been successful in business at Bain Capital, in politics as the governor of Massachusetts, and in the nonprofit sector as the head of the Salt Lake City Olympics. He is well-organized and well-funded. He responded to his loss in South Carolina by being more assertive, improving his debate performance, and rebounding to win the Florida and Nevada primaries.
Romney is the personification of free-enterprise capitalism, in which people take responsibility for their own welfare and in the process improve the lives of others. It may not be a perfect economic system, but it is better than the alternatives. He would be a good standard-bearer in the general election and a worthy opponent for President Obama.
A Romney-vs.-Obama campaign would present the country with a real choice. Not between caricatures of the heartless robber baron who relishes showing people the door and the community organizer who favors a mommy state. But between two subtly, but significantly different, visions of America. One that believes people are happier and healthier when they provide for themselves as much as possible, and another that believes government should play a major role in providing for them by regulating what people do and make and have.
In that debate, I prefer the Republican argument, and I prefer that Mitt Romney make it.