South Carolina primary: can a divided Republican house unite around Romney?

Can the Republican party get behind Mitt Romney despite the misgivings of the base? AAP/Michael Reynolds

By rights, Mitt Romney should be on the ropes. In the years leading up to the Republican presidential primaries, he supported small-l liberal positions on anything from abortion and gun control to climate mitigation and big spending stimulus packages.

When he was governor of Massachusetts, he signed into law a healthcare plan not dissimilar to what Tea Partiers call “Obamacare.” He once even distanced himself from Ronald Reagan, something that amounts to heresy in conservative circles. That should have made him an easy target for someone like Rick Perry, who today withdrew from the race after starting as an early favourite.

So you might expect the Republican Party to rally around a single conservative contender who would knockout what Newt Gingrich calls a “Massachusetts moderate.” Yet a remarkable thing is happening in the contest to win the GOP nomination to face President Obama this November: not only does Romney manage to stay on his feet; he could win virtually every primary bout in 2012 – a first for a non-incumbent president.

How so? Why is someone whom a clear majority of Republicans think should be beatable and be beaten defeating any challenger who dares get in the ring with him? Why is a Mormon from (of all places) the liberal north-east poised to win the all-important primary in a southern state with a strong conservative and evangelical leanings?

Mitt Romney deeply divides the Republican base. AAP/Michael Reynolds

There are several explanations for Romney’s success: money; organisation; attack ads; his record in business and running the Olympics; important endorsements (from George Bush Sr to popular governors to influential conservative magazines); his many policy flip flops; and the polls that show he’s the most “electable” candidate against President Obama.

But there is an even more plausible reason why Romney is widely favoured to add this weekend’s South Carolina title to his victories in Iowa and New Hampshire: it’s his split conservative opposition. The anti-Romney vote is so fractured and fragmented that Romney wins by default. In other words, the folks chasing the frontrunner around the ring are also busily chasing each other.

South Carolina appears to follow the trend set in the pre-primary race. During the past six to nine months, several conservatives were dubbed Republican presidential front runners: former congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, Texas governor Rick Perry, entrepreneur Herman Cain and even, at one point, property tycoon Donald Trump. All crashed and burned.

In the past six weeks, two other conservative challengers have emerged: former Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. After impressive starts – Gingrich recorded double-digit national poll leads in early December while Santorum narrowly lost the Iowa caucuses on January 3 – both trailed badly in New Hampshire last week. And although their vote will increase in conservative South Carolina, neither is likely to win the Palmetto State.

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich present Romney with credible opposition. AAP/Erik S Lesser

(Ron Paul, the eccentric Texas congressman, will continue to place well in the lead up to the Tampa convention in August. But although his support base is strong, his ceiling is low. That is because his unorthodox views on foreign and financial matters alienate the Republican mainstream, especially in a state that is home to seven military bases and the highest per capita defence population in the US.)

The situation has become so desperate for the anti-Romney candidates that they are now deploying Democratic tactics against him. In the past week, these conservatives have attacked Romney over his income tax returns and record as a venture capitalist. But they have misjudged their audience. Class-warfare may appeal to the New York Times editorial board, but it is unlikely to resonate with the pro-free enterprise faithful in a Republican primary.

Still, if one candidate can shock the media consensus about Romney’s coronation, it is Gingrich. In December, he was subjected to a barrage of negative advertisements that highlighted, most notably, his role as a corporate lobbyist for real-estate broker Freddie Mac, which conservatives partly blame for the subprime mortgage crisis. Not surprisingly, the former university historian was bound for the history dustbin.

But he now has what the political class calls momentum. In Monday night’s primary debate, Gingrich outflanked and outscored his opponents, harping on hot-button issues such as welfare reform and the war on terror and, in the process, receiving standing ovations from the 3,000 Republicans.

Doling out the ideological red meat to a hungry base always helps in a GOP primary in a conservative state. South Carolinians, meanwhile, remain uneasy about Romney and open to a compelling conservative alternative. And Rick Perry’s decision overnight to quit the race and endorse Gingrich dramatically changes the dynamics in South Carolina. So much so that Romney’s poll lead has shrunk to 1 per cent.

Whether any of this is enough for the former speaker to win the Republican nomination remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: the divided conservative vote hurts Gingrich and helps Romney.