Jan. 9 (Bloomberg) -- Mitt Romney is one lucky guy. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the collection of hapless opponents he’s faced this campaign.
With the monumentally inept Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann gone, five Romney opponents remain, each one deeply flawed, and none seemingly capable of the kind of sustained attack necessary to derail Romney’s nomination.
Their last, best chance may have been this past weekend, before Tuesday’s primary in New Hampshire, where Romney leads every public poll. Romney, who also leads in the next primary state, South Carolina, must be damaged, and soon, or he’ll be using Florida’s Jan. 31 primary as a dress rehearsal for his coronation at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. The rest of the field will be left pleading for non-prime-time speaking roles.
In the pre-debate warm-up, Newt Gingrich’s camp predicted a “fight night.” In his Iowa concession rant, Gingrich had smacked down Romney; he had even called Romney a liar in an interview. Word was out that Romney would need a flak jacket to protect himself from a furious barrage. In fact, he needed nothing more than his funeral director’s suit.
In the green-room mirror, each of the non-Mitts must have seen a winner, if only of the runner-up slot. Once in front of the cameras, they formed a circular firing squad.
With Texas Representative Ron Paul a sideshow and Texas Governor Rick Perry a goner, it was up to Rick Santorum and a barely breathing Jon Huntsman to throw themselves between Romney and the nomination.
Yet the audience for Santorum’s brand of conservatism is smaller in New Hampshire than in Iowa. Coming off his near-win there, he needs to appeal to blue-collar workers who lost their jobs in the mills along the Merrimack and to Catholic conservatives who, according to exit polls, made up 38 percent of voters in the state’s 2008 Republican primary. To challenge Romney in New Hampshire on Tuesday, Santorum must offer a vision more compelling than gay people not marrying and women not having abortions.
He seemed to be making progress last week. Proffering memories of his grandfather whose hands grew rough in the coal mines, Santorum is the closest thing to Pat Buchanan, who won the New Hampshire primary in 1996 with shots across the bow of the Republican yacht club. While Skipper Romney appears ever cool and breezy regardless of the topic, the culture warrior Santorum is sometimes sweaty with belief.
Santorum’s weak attack on the business whiz Romney -- “We need a leader, we don’t need a manager” -- is not going to win the race. Even after a quick infusion of cash following his strong showing in Iowa, Santorum’s campaign is in no position to compete on the airways with Romney’s juggernaut. The news media, which ignored Santorum when he was a lonely nobody in a sweater vest and a pickup crisscrossing Iowa, are now vetting him, drawing a portrait of a senator who took deep drafts at the special interest trough after Pennsylvania voters sent him packing in 2006 with a humiliating 17-point loss.
In Congress, he was a big spender with great affection for earmarks and the brigade of lobbyists crawling down K Street. After his defeat, he earned $1.3 million consulting for special interests and sitting on the boards of companies he had aided in the Senate.
While Santorum whiffed at Saturday’s debate, Huntsman at last expressed his seething resentment of Romney. Trouble is, he did it in Mandarin, proving again that he’s the perfect candidate for the Boston Globe, which has endorsed him, but an outlier in a party suspicious of education, erudition and all things foreign.
On Sunday morning, the candidates having had 10 hours to conjure the zingers that eluded them the night before, were somewhat more aggressive. But they still seemed reluctant to sink their teeth into Romney’s ankle. Huntsman battled Romney intermittently, and in English, strongly defending his service as the Obama administration’s ambassador to China and slipping in that his sons also served -- in the Navy.
The candidates didn’t put a dent in Romney’s cheery assessment of his job-creating powers as a consultant. That claim is in for a giant rebuttal this week. With financing from Gingrich friend and billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson, a super PAC that supports Gingrich is scheduled to air ads in South Carolina attacking Romney for destroying jobs and livelihoods during his career as a private equity manager. On Sunday, Gingrich criticized what he called “rich people figuring out clever legal ways to loot a company, leaving behind 1,700 families without a job.”
While Gingrich is ratcheting up his attacks, a group of Christian conservative leaders is seeking to create what the fractured Republican field has failed to produce: a single, viable alternative to Romney. (In the process, they hope to salvage some of their own waning influence.)
Is it too late? Romney goes into Tuesday’s New Hampshire vote unbowed. He spent much of Saturday’s debate with his hands in his pockets and a grin on his face. No one tried to wipe it off. Maybe no one can.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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