Mitt McCain — The GOP’s Strange Replay of 2008

by Stuart Rothenberg January 18, 2012 · 9:20 AM EST

The combination of Mitt Romney’s 16-point victory in New Hampshire and his rousing election night speech launched the former Massachusetts governor toward South Carolina with the kind of old-fashioned momentum that any candidate for high office would love.

Of course, Romney’s competitors are not without their assets. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) is a world-class talker who has a 10,000-word answer to any question. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) is serious and even thoughtful. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is down-home. Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) is principled and determined.

But other than Romney, the only Republican who fit the presidential mold was former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who finally got a reality check and ended his campaign Monday since he had no route to victory.

Romney’s persona doesn’t guarantee his nomination, of course, but that isn’t all he has. He also has a well-funded, well-oiled national political machine, a consistently conservative stump speech that fits his party and the growing aura of both electability and inevitability.

Still, if conservatives can rally behind a single alternative to Romney, they can at least have an opportunity to stop his momentum and reframe the race. After all, they do have years of ammunition to use against him.

How did anti-Romney conservatives get themselves into this pickle once again? Perry’s supporters convinced him that his Southern roots and regional appeal will eventually allow him to emerge as the conservative standard-bearer, while Santorum believes that, after his photo-finish showing in Iowa, he has become the logical alternative to Romney.

And Gingrich? Well, Newt can’t conceive that voters would actually choose someone other than him to go against President Barack Obama, and his anger and frustration over Romney’s attacks on him and his quick descent from frontrunner to also-ran won’t allow him to exit before South Carolina voters have their say.

While the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary have produced winners such as Pat Buchanan and Mike Huckabee during the past 20 years, the Palmetto State’s list of GOP primary winners looks like a roster of frontrunners: John McCain (2008), George W. Bush (2000), Bob Dole (1996) and George H.W. Bush (1988).

South Carolina, after all, isn’t just the state of Bob Jones University. It’s also the state of Sen. Lindsey Graham and former Gov. Mark Sanford, two Republicans who were elected with greater support from the business community and country clubs than from the churches.

Still, six out of 10 Palmetto State GOP primary voters in 2008 described themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians, and only 31 percent of those primary voters identified themselves as moderate or liberal, far fewer than the 48 percent who accepted those labels in the New Hampshire primary.

For Romney, the scariest number might well be 15 percent — the figure he drew in the Palmetto State’s 2008 primary.

The former Massachusetts governor built strong bases in Iowa and New Hampshire four years ago, and he matched his 2008 showing exactly in Iowa this year (25 percent) and exceeded it by a few points in New Hampshire last week (32 percent in 2008 compared with 39 percent now).

But Romney can’t merely match or barely exceed his ’08 showing in South Carolina to win Saturday’s Republican primary. He’ll need to approach doubling that showing to ensure another win.

Romney probably can win South Carolina by drawing the same number that McCain did in the state four years ago: 33 percent. And, while it isn’t inevitable, that certainly seems possible. And Romney is in the fortunate position that he doesn’t need to finish first on Saturday. He did well in Iowa a couple of weeks ago, while McCain essentially wrote off the Iowa caucuses in 2008, finishing fourth there with 13 percent.

For McCain, South Carolina was absolutely crucial. For Romney, a win in the Palmetto State would all but lock up the nomination, but a second-place showing would still keep him very much in the hunt, headed to expensive Florida, where he finished a credible second to McCain in 2008, and friendly Nevada, where he won half of caucus attendees.

Of course, there is a bit of irony here, if you are looking for some.

Four years ago, Romney was backed by many conservatives because they viewed him as the best, indeed the only, Republican who could stop Arizona “maverick” McCain from winning the GOP nomination.

South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, for example, among the most prominent and outspoken conservatives in the Senate, endorsed Romney in 2008 in his effort to prevent McCain from getting the Republican nod. DeMint’s letter in support of Romney was glowing and effusive in its praise. But DeMint has not embraced Romney in this race (though some of his close allies did so late last week) and Monday he made clear he would not offer a presidential endorsement.

To the Republican right, Romney was better than McCain, but he isn’t better than a number of his opponents this time.

So, to a great degree in the 2012 contest, Romney has become McCain — except without the Arizonan’s greatest asset, his military record and heroism.

The question for Romney, both in South Carolina and beyond, is how much of his 2008 vote he can hold and how much of McCain’s vote he can add to it. The populist, anti-Bain attacks from Gingrich and Perry only increase the likelihood that Romney will grow his appeal.