MANCHESTER, N.H.--Having won two presidential contests and facing a divided opposition, Mitt Romney is training his guns on President Obama. It makes perfect sense to pivot: Nothing galvanizes the Republican faithful like an attack on the 44th president.
After winning the New Hampshire primary, Romney offered only a fleeting mention of some “desperate Republicans”--read: Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry--before ripping into Obama as a “disappointing candidate and a failed president” who is content with high unemployment and wants to turn the United States into a “European-style social-welfare state.” Romney refrained from saying Obama kicks puppies.
It’s not that Mitt Romney has wrapped up the nomination, but he’s much closer to closing the deal than he was on Monday. He survived his first gaffe of the campaign when he mangled his sensible idea that people should have more choice in health insurance into saying he liked firing people. The bizarre verbal construct played into an impression of Romney as predatory and rich, a scavenger who bought companies to kill them. “A vulture,” Perry called him, although if the buzzards are circling anyone it’s the Texas governor who garnered 1 percent of the vote in New Hampshire.
Romney’s big victory is slightly reminiscent of the climactic scene in The Godfather, when Michael Corleone takes out the heads of the rival families, gunning them down simultaneously. Jon Huntsman? After finishing a disappointing third on the most fertile soil he’s likely to find, the former Utah governor can go on to South Carolina but many Republicans are asking why. The two Ricks? Santorum’s Iowa win is a distant memory after failing to garner 10 percent in New Hampshire, and Perry is a goner. Ron Paul can keep feeding off the land, but his second-place showing in New Hampshire was driven by independents, and that door will close in future contests.
And Gingrich, who received just just 10 percent of the New Hampshire vote, seems as implausible a nominee as he was when he was taking Greek cruises. “Today I settled all family business,” Corleone said, and so could Romney.
Now Romney faces the hard part, taking on the president. By engaging Obama, Romney can animate Republicans who have doubted his conservative cred. And you might as well get a head start on eight months of shadow warfare until the party’s nominating conventions and the presidential debates.
Of course, South Carolina still looms. But as one Republican operative said of the New Hampshire results, “Romney’s people couldn’t have set up the South Carolina race better if they tried.” No one dropped out and the conservative opposition—what’s left of it—seems hopelessly divided.
And while the state’s GOP primary electorate is conservative, it also has a way of ratifying front-runners from Ronald Reagan in 1980 to John McCain in 2008, who beat evangelical Mike Huckabee. South Carolina left the likes of Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan in the dust. The state is 49th in per capita Catholic population--probably not the most fertile soil for Santorum, who has made his traditional faith the centerpiece of his campaign. And Newt Gingrich may have represented a Georgia congressional district for a generation, but that doesn’t carry much weight in the Charleston Low Country or up in Spartanburg.
With Gov. Nikki Haley in his corner, Romney looks awfully strong, and the state could deliver the coup de grace to Gingrich, Perry, and Huntsman. Santorum and Paul are likely to live off the land for some time.
So what did we learn about Romney in New Hampshire? He joined the ranks of Massachusetts aspirants who have won the state--from Paul Tsongas to John Kerry to Henry Cabot Lodge, who won on a write-in ballot in 1964 while he was President Johnson’s ambassador to South Vietnam.
Aside from the blessings of geography, Romney showed organizational muscle--the courtship of the Sununu dynasty was key--and a certain restraint in not unloading on Gingrich’s kamikaze mission to take him out. But with his “I like being able to fire people” line, Romney is wounded even as he wins. He may cruise to the nomination, but he’s cementing his image as the boss you hate.
The nominating conventions in late summer give Romney a chance to hit the reset button and reintroduce himself, but it’s probably not worth waiting that long to explain that he’s rich and he cares.
The country nurses the log-cabin myth that presidents can come from humble origins, but it’s more than willing to embrace the wealthy from FDR to JFK to the Bushes, provided they take special efforts to show they care--whether it’s Roosevelt and his polio or W. being such a regular guy.
You can be worth $250 million, but you can’t delight in firing people. Nor can you wager $10,000--as Romney did during the debates--with the casual cluelessness of a British lord on Downton Abbey, PBS’s homage to the English peerage. (The only thing worse than a European social-welfare state is a European aristocrat.) Romney can tell a different story of course: Yeah, my dad was a governor and an auto executive, but he taught me to give back and work hard and help people and that’s what I’ve done. Now that the Godfather has whacked his opponents, it’s a message he needs.