Let’s let Mitt Romney take a little bow and acknowledge the applause before he steps into the South Carolina buzz saw. Let us praise him a moment before pointing out the flaws in his candidacy. Good campaign, steady debater, can take and give a punch, has a resume and a message on the number one issue: the economy. Was that long enough? Ok, on to South Carolina and his flaws.
If there is a more down and dirty political venue than South Carolina, I haven’t seen it. The state has a long tradition of negative politics. Some date this to Lee Atwater, who once famously accused an opponent who had been treated for depression as someone who had “been hooked up to jumper cables.” But actually the legacy extends at least to the ante-bellum period. After Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner had attacked a fellow senator, South Carolina’s Andrew Butler for a taking a mistress, “the harlot Slavery,” a relative, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks, entered the chambers and took a cane to Sumner’s head. He beat the abolitionist so badly that he was unable to return to the Senate for three years and suffered the after-effects the rest of his life. One imagines there are some modern-day Sumners in South Carolina politics, still walking in a daze, wondering what hit them in races where anonymous fliers and phone calls destroyed their careers. This is a state where almost anything goes, even accusing John McCain’s adopted child of being illegitimate, as was done to him in 2000.
So welcome to South Carolina, Mitt! But he will likely survive. Santorum, Gingrich and Paul still seem focused on second-place. That strategy will run out in South Carolina.
Finally, Mitt’s flaws. He seems to have what has plagued other losers in the past, like Walter Mondale and John Kerry: an enthusiasm gap. Yes, he has time to close it, but a lack of intensity often lingers. And he had better hope the economy doesn’t continue to improve. His every chip is placed there.