First South Carolina Debate: Can Romney Be Stopped?

Tonight is the first and best chance for Mitt Romney’s rivals to slow his momentum before Saturday’s South Carolina primary. He has an average lead of 7.7 points in the state with Newt Gingrich not far behind him. It’s tempting to declare that Romney has the nomination in the bag, but if he trips up tonight and suffers from a week of negative media coverage, that could be enough for him to lose the primary and keep this race going.

The biggest advantage Romney has is that he doesn’t need to knock it out of the park tonight. Had Gingrich, Santorum, or Perry dropped out, then he’d have to worry. Instead, the anti-Romney vote is divided. His rivals have two choices: pounce on him or squabble amongst themselves. If they take the first option, then Romney must have prepared answers that show his electability. This first option benefits Romney because none of his opponents leave with injuries, and so the field against him remains divided. With the second option, Romney has to worry about a coalescing of the anti-Romney vote, but can enjoy the time he doesn’t have a target on his back.

Newt Gingrich has been very clear about the fact that he must win South Carolina. He’s gone so far as to call it "Armageddon." The problem facing him is that the areas where he has been clashing with Romney don’t work to his favor. His attacks on Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital have backfired, and I highly doubt anyone is going to base their vote on the issue of Super PACs. Gingrich must shift his argument in a way that undermines Romney’s greatest strength -- electability -- and exploits his biggest vulnerability -- authenticity as a conservative.

Gingrich appears to recognize this. His new ad in South Carolina attacks Romney for flip-flopping on abortion and accuses him of having “government-mandated health care with taxpayer-funded abortions” as governor. The ad also says that he appointed a pro-choice judge and had Planned Parenthood on the state medical board. That could do serious damage among social conservatives in South Carolina, and Gingrich will probably make that his main talking point against Romney tonight.

Gingrich’s second lines of attack are electability and questioning Romney’s credentials as a job creator. He called on Romney to release records to prove that he created 100,000 jobs while at Bain: “If he can’t stand up today and defend his claim today, how is he going to stand up to Obama in the fall?” he asks. If Gingrich can make Romney flustered, he will be able to make voters question whether Romney can withstand the onslaught that the Democratic Party will hit him with.

Rick Santorum has adopted Gingrich’s term of “Massachusetts moderate” to describe Romney. He is focusing on Romney’s changing political stripes, and called him “bland and boring.” The problem Santorum faces is that the first line of attack has already been used as much as it can be. Every voter knows about it. The second criticism probably can’t be said in an artful way on the debate stage, and isn’t a very convincing talking point.