COLUMBIA, S.C. - The aura of inevitability that Mitt Romney worked so hard to attain is gone, blown up - perhaps for good - by a rough-and-tumble week in South Carolina that exposed new vulnerabilities in the former governor’s campaign.
Suddenly, the Florida primary on Jan. 31, once seen as a coronation event that would mark Romney as the presumptive nominee, is shaping up as a hair-raising contest for his campaign - and maybe a must win.
Romney has managed his Republican primary campaign all year with the discipline of the corporate chief executive he once was, and a relentless focus on conveying a consistent and steady message: He is the only one who can beat President Obama.
Until South Carolina, it was working.
Faced with intense, sustained attacks by Newt Gingrich and his other GOP opponents, in the hostile territory of a Bible-belt red state, Romney seemed knocked off stride and off message.
His preparedness and discipline appeared to slip. He lacked crisp answers to thorny questions about his personal wealth, questions, as many have noted, that he had to know would come up. And as he tried to project a tone of cool confidence, he left the door open for an increasingly fiery Gingrich to shine in crucial debates.
In particular, Romney allowed controversies about the effective tax rate he pays on his huge income, and whether he would release his tax returns, to dominate the news for several days, in the classic drip-drip-drip of negativity that most modern campaigns seek assiduously to avoid. He seemed flummoxed when the inevitable questions were asked Thursday in a second consecutive debate.
“Clearly, Romney has underperformed,’’ said Jordan Ragusa, a College of Charleston political science professor. “I think that Romney strategically erred in not being prepared for some basic questions that he should have known would come up.’’
Romney’s footing seemed less sure just as Gingrich, from neighboring Georgia, got his legs under him and started delivering roundhouse punches.
The former House speaker obviously relished the trench warfare that is a hallmark of South Carolina politics - continuing to brand Romney a “Massachusetts moderate’’ - while Romney initially stuck to his strategy of staying above the primary fray and focusing his stump attacks on Obama. Romney left most of the dirty work to the super PAC supporting him.
Having arrived in South Carolina trailing a baggage train of negatives - and two disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire - Gingrich tapped into voter frustrations with attacks on multiple targets, whether it was the media, Obama, or Romney.
And Gingrich’s evident comfort and skill in political warfare also worked to undermine Romney’s contention that he is the most electable candidate. Conservatives voters repeatedly said in interviews that they believe Gingrich could forcefully take on Obama and win in the general election.
“There doesn’t seem to be any deviation in Romney. I’d like to see him get a little hot once in a while. He’s almost too cool,’’ said Chris Nickels, a Town Council member and Gingrich supporter from Mount Pleasant. “On the podium, I want to see some fire.’’
“Gingrich seems to be giving me more of what I want, which is an attacker,’’ said Daniel Ruoss of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a member of the Young Republican National Federation who was in Charleston observing the GOP drama. “Romney’s steady, but I don’t feel the attack thing.’’
Gingrich attempted to drive home the message in a radio spot that was among the plethora of ads airing by candidates all week: “He can and will beat Barack Obama!’’
Some negative developments last week were beyond Romney’s control.
There was Rick Perry’s last-minute capitulation and endorsement of Gingrich. There was Thursday’s reversal of the close Iowa result - stripping away Romney’s highly symbolic, razor-thin caucus victory and giving it to Rick Santorum. And there was the burst of super PAC millions from a single wealthy contributor - casino mogul Sheldon Adelson - that allowed Gingrich’s supporters to launch a negative advertising campaign against Romney that had been largely missing in Iowa and New Hampshire.
The momentum-sapping loss yesterday will make it far more difficult for Romney to clinch the nomination early, even if he wins Florida.
Just a week ago, Romney had a double-digit lead in the polls, and the media was full of stories about how the former Massachusetts governor had put the race almost out of reach for his clamoring rivals. It was not an impression his campaign sought to discourage.
But now the campaign is back to what his advisers have always described as Plan A: a potentially prolonged, state-by-state battle through the spring for a majority of nominating convention delegates.
Romney has the advantage in money and organization in Florida and elsewhere to help him win a war of attrition.
New Republican Party rules distribute delegates proportionally to the vote in the early states, a move intended to extend the battleground to Super Tuesday on March 6 and beyond.
“We built the campaign to be about getting to 1,150 delegates,’’ the number needed to lock down the nomination, said a top Romney adviser. “We look at each phase, month by month, and we’re already ahead of where we thought we’d be.’’
A close ally, former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, arrived in South Carolina to help adjust expectations as Gingrich began overtaking Romney in polls released late in the week.
“You’re going to see the same kind of long slog that you saw in ’76, with Ford and Reagan,’’ Sununu said.
In that contest, the candidates almost evenly split the states, with President Ford winning the Northeast, industrial Midwest, and Florida, and Ronald Reagan securing the West and the South.
Ford lacked enough delegates to secure the nomination by the end of the primaries and only beat Reagan after a convention floor fight.
Thirty-six years later, the candidates are headed to Florida for the Jan. 31 primary, followed by caucus and primary elections next month, mostly in states that are more moderate than South Carolina: Nevada, Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, Arizona, and Michigan.
In addition to a friendlier schedule, Romney has the GOP establishment on his side and more resources.
But South Carolina demonstrated that those advantages might not be enough in the face of a conservative electorate hungering for a fight - and a fighter.