If Mitt Romney wins New Hampshire and rolls to victory against a divided opposition in South Carolina, it is hard to imagine anything -- short of catching him fondling a hedge fund manager in the back seat of a Town Car – that could keep him from winning the Republican nomination.
However, it’s easy to envision him crippled in the general election by the pinstriped-job-killer image being created for him by Romney's Republican opponents. If they keep it up, voters will equate Romney's role at Bain Capital with George Clooney’s character in the movie “Up in the Air” – the polite but cold-blooded guy in the suit who flies in to fire workers and ruin their lives.
Romney’s constant dilemma has been that there are too many topics he cannot talk about without fudging the facts. If he talks about his term as governor of Massachusetts, he has to pretend he didn’t run and govern as a moderate, New England Republican. If he talks about abortion, gay rights and guns, he has to twist his record to show that, somehow, he has not flip-flopped on those issues. If he talks about his Mormon faith, he must downplay the depth of his involvement as a lay bishop of the church (and he sure can't brag about the fluency in French he acquired as a Mormon missionary to the land of cheese-eating surrender monkeys). None of those aspects of his biography play well with the conservative, evangelical base of his party.
His calculated evasions magnify the already off-putting plasticity of his personal style. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews nailed it, harshly but accurately, on Monday morning when he said it is hard to know what Romney truly believes because he seems “dog trained to say certain things.”
Up to this point, his claim of being a businessman, rather than a professional politician, is the one thing that has worked for Romney. Now, even that may be problematic.
In Sunday’s NBC debate, Newt Gingrich scoffed at Romney's self-description as a modern-day Cincinnatus who reluctantly left his plow in the furrowed financial fields of Bain to serve as governor and later offer himself up to be president. Gingrich insisted Romney had been in continuous campaign mode for one political office or another for two decades. Claiming otherwise, he sneered, is “pure baloney.”
A much harder hit is in the wings: a 27-minute film, “When Mitt Romney Came to Town,” that Gingrich’s "super PAC" will be airing in South Carolina. In it, Romney is slammed as a “predatory corporate raider” who ruined the lives of thousands of American workers and their families by dismantling companies and dumping their employees.
While talking about the film in Sunday’s debate, Gingrich drew a fine line between his own vision of capitalism – “create a business, grow jobs, provide leadership” – and Romney’s Wall Street model, “where you can flip companies, you can go in and have leveraged buyouts, you can basically take out all the money, leaving behind the workers.”
Smelling blood, Jon Huntsman Jr. and Rick Perry are attacking the front-runner on the same ground. During a discussion of healthcare providers at a Chamber of Commerce gathering in Nashua, N.H., Romney said, “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.” Within hours, Huntsman seized on those words, ripped them from their context and declared, “Gov. Romney enjoys firing people; I enjoy creating jobs.”
Meanwhile, down in South Carolina, Perry told voters: “There is something inherently wrong when getting rich off failure and sticking it to someone else is the way you do business. It is the ultimate insult for Mitt Romney to come to South Carolina and say he feels your pain.”
While it may be disingenuous for a bunch of free-market conservatives running for the nomination of a pro-business, conservative party to come off sounding like Occupy Wall Street rabble-rousers, it has to be helping one candidate. President Obama's campaign staff in Chicago can take the week off. Romney's Republican rivals are doing their job for them.