SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Mitt Romney's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week is not the way any contender would hope to go into Saturday’s pivotal Republican primary here. But even as his rivals pile on over his tax rate, tax returns and out-of-touch persona, Romney is betting his business background will be a net positive in a right-to-work state that likes to send candidates on their way to the GOP nomination.
Amid the furor, with Newt Gingrich rising in polls, Romney came to the belly of the beast Wednesday to a region that decisively rejected him in its 2008 presidential primary. At a rally at Wofford College filled with a pro-Romney crowd of retired businessmen and enthusiastic college students, Romney expounded on the virtues of free-market capitalism, seemingly unaffected by the unfriendly fire directed at him.
Outside the friendly campus, there are fresh signs that the attacks are having an impact. Former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, an acidic attacker of Gingrich, is taking a rare jaunt away from New England to campaign for Romney. And the campaign organized a conference call to blast the former House speaker’s record and personality. Former congresswoman Susan Molinari, a leading Romney surrogate, described Gingrich’s management style as speaker as “leadership by chaos” and blamed him for the GOP’s congressional setbacks in 1996 and 1998.
In addition, Romney mentioned Gingrich by name in his stump speech for the first time in over a month. “A congressman taking credit for creating jobs is like Al Gore taking credit for the Internet,” Romney jibed. Romney usually outsources direct criticism of rivals to his surrogates. The departure here, and Romney's comparison of Gingrich to a Democrat loathed by the GOP base, suggests Romney's lead is slipping and he knows it.
Romney supporters at the rally indicated they thought Gingrich was gaining steam in this part of the state after his strong debate performance, and had passed former senator Rick Santorum as Romney’s biggest threat in the area.
Indeed, at a Gingrich event Tuesday night in the working-class bastion of Aiken, the audience was packed with Romney skeptics who applauded at the mention of Romney as a Massachusetts moderate and saw him as distinctly out-of-touch with their own economic interests.
“There's something disconcerting about his looks," said Anne Fulcher, who found herself unemployed after spending three decades working in the health care sector. "He's a lot of show. He gives me the impression of being too perfect. I usually can spot someone who is putting in airs.” She said she more closely identified with Gingrich, based on his policy-heavy stump speech and appeal to conservative values.
Tom Plowden, a local Republican activist around rural Augusta, said he'd support Romney in a heartbeat against Obama -- but Gingrich is his first choice. “Romney, there are just so many unknowns. Great at wearing an expensive suit, and has the smile, and has the photo op,” Plowden said. “But I think his platform and what he’s done doesn’t jibe with us. I don’t think he’s what we need as a president.”
Spartanburg is a city that offers a unique test of whether Romney’s wealthy, privileged background is a turn-off or whether his executive expertise is more important to voters, looking for someone to turn around the economy. On paper, it’s not particularly friendly territory. Romney only won 13 percent of the vote in the 2008 Republican presidential primary, finishing a very distant fourth place behind Mike Huckabee. The region was, until recently, one of the largest textile-producing parts in the country; now there are only two textile companies left here. The unemployment rate is still in double-digits, despite signs of dynamism around the area.
At the rally here, most of the attendees (many with backgrounds in business) dismissed the attacks on Romney’s wealth. “He pays what the government says he needs to pay,” said Linda Tollison, a Romney supporter who’s a stay-at-home mom and active Republican volunteer in Greenville.
Tollison, like most in this crowd of retirees, cited Romney’s business background as his greatest asset and scoffed at the criticism of his wealth and tax rate as politics-as-usual. She compared his travails with that of Gov. Nikki Haley, who took a barrage of nasty attacks from her Republican opponents in the 2010 gubernatorial primary.
“If he could get other people to understand how capitalism works, we could have a good recovery,” added Joe Mariner, a businessman from Spartanburg who jokingly referred to himself as a “vulture capitalist” for helping to speed up the creation of large drugstores, like CVS and Walgreen’s.
Until then, Romney will be facing a challenge on his right flank from an ascendant populist wing of the party which harbors lingering questions about his business-oriented conservatism and too-smooth style. Romney may be holding a lead in South Carolina, but it’s a fragile one.