What Does the Turn South Mean for Republicans?

The Republican strategist and Democratic pollster in their bi-weekly faceoff about Election 2012

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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney addresses supporters on Jan. 5 in Charleston, S.C.

Penn: Mitt Romney’s victory in New Hampshire means that South Carolina is his chance to seal the deal. If he fails, it will turn the Republican nominating process back into chaos. If he succeeds, then it will effectively be over.

Romney’s 49% showing with registered Republicans in New Hampshire suggests that he is likely to be successful and roll up the nomination, ending a path that began at the doorsteps of Sarah Palin and Donald Trump and that for a while looked like it would herald the unexpected return of Newt Gingrich. Herman Cain is already a distant memory.

The attacks in Iowa on Gingrich were so successful that forces supporting him are promising payback in South Carolina. But the attacks on Romney in New Hampshire appeared so desperate that they had little effect — the second and third place finishers had niches of support that stuck with them as Ron Paul is strong with young people and Jon Huntsman with independents.

Beyond Republicans, this primary will also give the nation a greater look at how the Super PACs are driving the debate and artificially boosting candidates who in any other election would have been long gone. Gingrich finished fourth place in both Iowa and New Hampshire, yet with a last second $5 million donation to his Super PAC, Gingrich is heading into South Carolina with his guns blazing. So is his Super PAC. Winning Our Future is planning to spend $3.4 million on advertising in South Carolina while also releasing a 28-min. film on Romney which vilifies him a job killer during his time leading Bain Capital.

The twists and turns portrayed in the media in retrospect seem overblown — this maybe was always Romney’s to lose and much of the drama was ginned up by cable TV and polls in which someone had to be second or in which news cycles seemed to drive new contenders who seemed to change with the frequency of new flavors at Baskin Robbins. Once the voting started, the path seemed clear enough. South Carolina is likely to confirm that.

(MORE: Can Republicans Learn to Love Mitt Romney?)

Hughes: For the sake of my party (and our ability to win in November), I hope “heading south” is a geographically, rather than politically and rhetorically descriptive destination. After dual victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, Romney heads to South Carolina in a stronger position than any non-incumbent Republican in modern times. Exit polls showed he won almost every segment of the electorate, from those who considered themselves the most conservative and staunchest Republicans to those who most want to beat President Obama. The biggest casualty of Iowa and New Hampshire may have been the misguided views of those who claimed he wasn’t able to energize Republican voters.

At the same time, and as Mark points out above, Romney heads south into a barrage of attacks on his successful business record from some desperate fellow Republicans, especially a PAC supporting Gingrich, which has produced a film worthy of those on the farthest left of the Democratic Party and plans to run $3.4 million in negative ads in South Carolina. Newt seems to be attacking out of anger that Romney overcame his short-lived rise to the top of Republican polls; Perry in a struggle to avoid being written off as an asterisk and an “oops” moment in the 2012 campaign.

But the attacks on free enterprise — not from the left but from the right — are both puzzling and alarming to me and many of my fellow conservatives. What Romney did in business was to build successful companies and save failing ones by cutting costs and making them live within their means — exactly what Gingrich and all the GOP candidates believe must be done in Washington. The only way to create new jobs in the long run is to build successful enterprises, as Romney has done throughout his career.

The 10 days until the South Carolina primary may be the most intense of the entire campaign, as I learned during the Bush campaign. Politics is a contact sport there, and a number of Republican campaigns are fighting for their very survival. South Carolina Republicans are both conservative and practical; “We pick Presidents” is their proud mantra.

No viable alternative candidate emerged out of New Hampshire, and Jon Huntsman did not get the big boost he had hoped for, although he tried to pretend that he did. Romney goes to South Carolina ahead in the most recent polls, endorsed by the governor and the strong front-runner in a state that likes to pick winners. The only question is whether Romney can successfully deflect attacks on his business record; his strong, presidential-sounding New Hampshire speech was a great start.