The Citadel — Charleston, SC — A week ago Mitt Romney based his campaign on two words: Inevitability and electability. He had won Iowa and New Hampshire, the first non-incumbent Republican to do so, and was poised to win South Carolina.
Then he wobbled a little in Monday night’s debate while Gingrich soared. And Rick Perry exited the race, and Gingrich got mauled by the mainstream media in the form of a vindictive ex-wife. Gingrich owned Thursday’s debate, while Romney racked up a trio of gaffes: A brain freeze, calling his Massachusetts health care law “RomneyCare,” and failing again to anticipate questions about whether he will release his taxes. How could he and his team have not seen that coming, and planned a serious response to it?
The gaffes chipped away at his electability without destroying, by pointing out that his programmed approach to the campaign failed to account for the unexpected, the pratfall, the outlying issue that he and his seasoned team had not seen in the road ahead.
And then came the death of his inevitability argument. News broke that he had actually lost Iowa to Rick Santorum by 34 votes. Setting aside the Iowa GOP’s bizarre behavior — informing Santorum that he had won, then going to the press to call the results of their own caucus “inconclusive,” then reversing themselves again and declaring Santorum the winner — the defeat in Iowa rewrote the won-loss record. Romney had gone from reaching for a 3-0 start to the campaign, to a less impressive 1-1, including a loss to a severely underfunded candidate.
And now Newt Gingrich has bashed his way into winning South Carolina by a significant margin. In three different contests across three different states including the first true southern primary, Mr. Inevitable has one win against two losses.
Next, Florida. I wrote after the Thursday debate that Gingrich was on track to win South Carolina, and that winning here might scramble the race in Florida. That state hosts the first closed primary. Romney has led there, by a lot, for a long time. But all of the polls taken there were taken there before this week’s turnaround in Carolina. Nate Silver looks ahead to the Sunshine State and sees signs of trouble for Romney there.
Let’s be honest: The circumstances still favor Romney. Come Super Tuesday, the remaining competitors will need true national organizations to be able to compete, and Romney is the only serious candidate who has that. But Romney is in trouble. He has miscalculated, perhaps fundamentally, by banking on inevitability and electability. To this point, Romney has overlooked the one thing that Gingrich has brought, and which has brought him back: Inspiration. And that may be enough to carry him all the way. It has certainly brought his campaign back from the dead. Twice.