Suddenly Mitt is bracing for defeat

The two very different narratives that could emerge from Saturday’s South Carolina results

Published January 20, 2012 9:08PM (EST)

Former Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney             (Steve Marcus / Reuters)
Former Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (Steve Marcus / Reuters)

If you're looking for a silver lining in what has been a pretty rotten week for Mitt Romney, it's this: The expectations for Saturday's South Carolina primary have shifted so dramatically that even a razor-thin Romney victory will now be seen as a momentous triumph, while anything short of an outright win for Newt Gingrich will be regarded as a crushing disappointment.

The three most recent polls in the state all show Gingrich pushing into the lead after trailing by double-digits earlier this week, and RealClearPolitics' polling average now puts him a point ahead of Romney. And it's likely that Gingrich's performance at Thursday night's debate did nothing to slow his momentum, and may actually have increased it. So it's not surprising that the Romney campaign is already seeking to soften the blow from a South Carolina loss. As the Huffington Post's Jon Ward reported, one of Romney's top surrogates, former New Hampshire Governor and Bush 41 Chief of Staff John Sununu, is again playing up the long game:

"I think you're going to see the same kind of long slog that you saw in '76, with [Gerald] Ford and [Ronald] Reagan, that it took the whole thing to win," Sununu told reporters.
"This is a long slog," Sununu said. "[Romney]'s never suggested one or two or three primaries or caucuses would make the difference. The whole campaign has been designed to go through the long slog."
Asked what Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, will need to do if Gingrich beats him in South Carolina, Sununu responded, "He has to do what they intended to do from the beginning: slog along."
"Mitt Romney's strength has been clearly defined as being ready for a long campaign under the new rules," Sununu said.

This was the same message that Romney's campaign emphasized back in December, when Gingrich opened wide leads in national and key early state polls. But when Gingrich's numbers returned to earth and Romney posted victories in Iowa* and New Hampshire, the campaign didn't exactly fight the conventional wisdom that a third win in South Carolina would effectively end the GOP contest.

Of course, Sununu's basic point is right -- financially and organizationally, Romney's campaign does seem far more suited for a drawn-out battle than Gingrich. But Gingrich's South Carolina rise is further proof of how unusually volatile this GOP race is -- and how sensitive to shifts in the dominant press narrative public opinion can be. On the strength of two relatively unimpressive victories (one of which wasn't even a victory, it turns out), Romney practically doubled his support nationally and opened commanding leads in South Carolina and Florida -- two states that had seemed resistant to him for months. But just in the past few days, as the "Gingrich comeback" narrative has taken hold, that South Carolina lead has vanished and his national advantage has shrunk to just ten points.

Thus, the narrative that emerges from South Carolina Saturday night will go a long way toward shaping the GOP race in Florida. And here there are two very different possibilities:

  • Romney holds off Gingrich: It was one of the worst weeks Romney's campaign has faced, but in the end Republican voters in the Tea Party capital of America -- a state where he finished a very distant fourth the last time he ran -- found enough to like about Romney, and were clearly unnerved by the profound personal baggage of his chief rival, which featured prominently in the final pre-South Carolina debate and was aired by his ex-wife in an interview that aired 36 hours before voting began. By surviving a stiff test in such inhospitable territory, Romney has regained his footing, proven he can take a hit, and emerged well positioned to post another victory ten days from now in Florida.
  • Gingrich completes his stunning comeback: Left for dead just a week ago, the former House Speaker revived his campaign with two dramatic debate performances and benefited from Mitt Romney's self-inflicted tax wounds and his inability to win the trust of the conservative base -- particularly evangelical voters, who may not be able to overlook his Mormon faith. Seen as the inevitable nominee at the start of this week, Romney now faces a troubling reality: He's lost two of the first three contests, with his only victory coming in what is essentially his home state.  Florida, a state that provided one of the Tea Party movement's signature primary season triumphs in 2010, now looms as a critical -- maybe even do-or-die -- test for him.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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