B y Eric Stern
THIS is Rick Perry’s last chance. This is, in fact, the last chance of the conservative base of the GOP to muster its resources and deal Mitt Romney, the frontrunner for the Republican Presidential nomination, a lethal body blow. And in order to capitalize on this final sliver of hope, the Texas Governor must do one thing: get himself to South Carolina. Now.
WHEREAS other candidates — namely Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich — have risen and fallen over the past several months, Romney has remained a remarkably steady frontrunner. Gingrich, the latest flavor of the month among Republicans, once looked to be a potent force in Iowa and other early states, but a barrage of attacks from his fellow GOP candidates (as well as a shoddy campaign organization) has allowed Romney to reclaim the lead.
With the Iowa caucuses just a week away, polls reveal that Romney will finish either first or second in a state he wasn’t even campaigning in several months ago. If he does not win the Iowa caucuses outright, the likely victor will be a dark horse like Rick Santorum or Texas Rep. Ron Paul, whose views on foreign policy as well as a host of other issues make him unpalatable to the majority of Republican voters.
(Romney, it should be noted, is practically a lock in the New Hampshire primary on January 10, where he is currently polling at least 15 points higher than his closest opponent.)
And according to John Heilemann of New York Magazine, either a Romney or a Paul win in Iowa is, “of course, great news for Romney. A victory in Iowa by Paul would set up as Romney’s chief competitor going forward a candidate whose views are too far out of line with too much of the Republican Party for him ever to claim the GOP nomination. And a victory by Romney would send him hurtling at breakneck speed into New Hampshire and almost certain triumph there — a result that would more or less hand him the nomination before Republicans in 48 other states have even voted.”
THE conservative base of the Republican Party has failed thus far to coalesce behind one anti-Romney candidate. And with the downward trajectory of Gingrich, the only candidate with the résumé, recognition and resources to seize that mantle is Perry. But he has a very small window in which to act.
Although this is surely not how his campaign would tell it, Perry is competing for a strong third in Iowa. He may have had the momentum over the summer, but a series of campaign gaffes and, let’s face it, atrocious debate moments have destroyed any chance he had of winning the caucuses. Third place in Iowa is nothing to sneeze at, but it won’t be enough to prevent Romney from winning the nomination. Perry can’t even dream of besting Romney in New Hampshire — a recent poll showed his favorability among the Granite State GOP to be lower than that of President Obama — and strong showings by Romney in those two contests (as well the Mormon-heavy Nevada caucuses, which take place on February 4) would just about hand him the nomination.
So what can Perry do?
HIS only hope is to bet everything on South Carolina, which has accurately picked every Republican Presidential nominee since the inception of the state’s primaries in 1980. Unlike in other early states — Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada — Romney does not have a strong base of support or rock-solid campaign organization. (He finished a weak fourth in the Palmetto State in 2008.)
The latest polls from South Carolina showed Romney and Gingrich in the lead, with Perry placing a substantial third, but these were all before Gingrich’s support began to wane. Indeed, now is Perry’s opportunity to plant a flag in the state. Texas is, of course, much closer geographically and ideologically to South Carolina than Massachusetts, and Perry is the only candidate with the resources to saturate the state’s airwaves with television and radio ads. But even this is not enough to wrest the nomination from Romney if the former Massachusetts Governor emerges victorious from Iowa and New Hampshire.
The only way for Perry to cut that Gordian knot is to abandon his Iowa tour and throw everything he has against the wall in South Carolina. (He announced his candidacy in Charleston and already has the most paid staffers in the state.) Campaigning there now and pouring the remainder of his campaign cash into the Charleston, Columbia, Greenville and Myrtle Beach media markets would guarantee significant coverage across the state — he would be the only candidate there for at least the next week.
This would undoubtedly result in a momentum for Perry in South Carolina, as well as a legitimate shot of winning the Republican primary in the state on January 21. A solid showing by Perry in South Carolina — which will be just about impossible if he commits to and gets blown away in Iowa and New Hampshire — would strengthen his campaign going into the January 31 Florida primaries.
And first or second place in Florida would solidify Perry’s status as the anti-Romney alternative in the race. This would unquestionably earn the Texas Governor more money, endorsements and — most importantly — momentum heading into Super Tuesday, the high noon of the Republican Presidential race.
WHILE there is little in any Presidential campaign certain enough to wager — let’s say — $10,000 on, it can hardly be disputed that it is increasingly likely Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee for President. The only chance for Perry — and his dyed-in-the-wool conservative allies — is to switch gears and commit to South Carolina. After all, the motto of the Palmetto State GOP, as NBC’s Ali Weinberg recently pointed out, is, “We pick Presidents.”