The South Carolina polls would close in a few hours, yet here was the central-casting candidate, a polished patrician worth upward of $200 million, feeding quarters into a laundry machine. His wife, Ann, comfy in a yellow sweatshirt, kept him company as they sat alone in the Columbia Marriott’s guest laundry room listening to the dryer churn.
When a reporter stumbled upon them, Romney was relaxed, even whimsical, fretting over a sock that fell between the machines and extolling the virtues of Brooks Brothers non-iron dress shirts.
This was a far cry from the thrown-off-balance Romney, stammering on the debate stage trying to talk about his taxes and wealth. Or from the suddenly humbled Romney, reaching for excuses to explain why one rally crowd was so meager — “Gosh, this is a workday, right?” Or from the fight-to-win Romney, coming alive with fiery rhetoric and stirring an impassioned crowd Friday night in Greenville, S.C.
Which of these will Romney be going forward?
Apparently the latter.
In conceding defeat here Saturday night, Romney was a stoic warrior. He’s a competitive creature, and those instincts kicked in as he girded supporters for a long battle with a resurgent Newt Gingrich.
There were notes of humility, but not defiance. Instead, he was upbeat and passionate, saying he will “keep fighting for every single vote . . . in every single state” as he put in sharp focus the party’s choice between himself and the former House speaker.
“I don’t shrink from competition; I embrace it,” Romney told supporters. “I believe competition makes us all better. I know it’s making our campaign stronger. And in the coming weeks, the ideals of free enterprise and economic freedom will need a very strong defense, and I intend to make it.”
Mitt Romney is a man of order. All his life, he has had a plan, and he executes his missions accordingly. But his plan to polish off his rivals in South Carolina flew out the window this week.
How Romney deals with his new adversity will say a lot about what kind of man he is and what kind of president he may be. And after South Carolina, he has just 48 hours before stepping back onto the debate podium Monday night in Tampa.
He could be scrappy and passionate — something South Carolina voters said they wanted — as he was Friday night after a week of getting pummeled. By the time he reached Greenville for the 9 p.m. rally, he looked exhausted. His loafers were still damp from standing in a pouring rain to give a stump speech that morning.
Yet as soon as Romney grabbed the microphone, he seemed to transform into a different candidate. He seemed to speak from the heart — however rehearsed he may have been — telling zany new jokes and delivering tough new lines about President Obama.
On the stump, Romney likes to draw a contrast between the palatial offices of executives at Solyndra, a failed solar-energy company whose loans were backed by the Obama administration, and Staples, the office-supply company Romney helped launch on the cheap.