COLUMBIA, S.C.—The sincerity backlash against Mitt Romney won't hit between now and Saturday, and it's only taken me a few hours on the ground here in South Carolina to realize this.
I concede that a widespread rejection of Mitt Romney's character can't be ruled out down the road—whether on Super Tuesday or later, or perhaps as early as Florida—but despite Romney's candidacy being under siege from all angles, these attacks have yet to shake up the race.
What exactly do I mean by a "sincerity backlash?"
The effect of victories in both Iowa and New Hampshire for Romney has been in some ways to cast doubt in the minds of those voters who have in essence certified his authenticity with a vote. After speaking with unenthusiastic New Hampshire voters the morning after Romney's January 10th victory, I sensed quite palpably a distinct possibility that certain substantial voting blocs in the months ahead would not be so willing to validate Romney the way they had.
Romney's "thousand yard stare" candidacy—in which he has largely overlooked his most prominent opponents and instead focused on Barack Obama—is an effort to delay the inevitable face-to-face confrontation and necessary reconciliation between Romney and the Republican base that needs to occur in order for him to galvanize core constituencies (he must do more than merely receive their wimpy blessing) and win a general election.
Could Romney be doing more than pretending to overlook his opponents, and in fact be saving the big reveal of his true political hand until a more opportune moment? I didn't think so at first, but with time Romney has been able to gradually let voters know more about his involvement with Bain Capital—delving into factual "specifics" about certain of his corporate clients and subsequent job loss/creation statistics—which I believe frustrated Americans will by and large appreciate, despite their inability to comprehend the majority of what's at stake in the execution of private equity transactions. Outside of his personal record and attempts to frame it in a positive light, there are also external factors that are beginning to look up for Romney.
Regardless of his small support through the first two contests of this year, Jon Huntsman's exit from the race yesterday does remove a significant moral thorn in Romney's side, and is no minor development as some commentators long-skeptical of Huntsman contend.
Taking Huntsman's criticisms out of the public discourse changes the breadth of the criticisms against Romney, and it's doubtful any of Romney's remaining four challengers can appear credible echoing Huntsman's "trust deficit" argument that had finally begun to catch on in the waning days of the New Hampshire Primary campaign.
My guess is that Jon Huntsman could also see a bit of what's so clear to me now: Huntsman's attacks against Mitt Romney stood to be the most damning in the long run, while also serving to have the least benefit for the man doing the attacking. In these terms, the suspension of Huntsman's campaign isn't such a big surprise, and Huntsman is wise to let Romney (presumably) lose on his own, without Huntsman racking up too many negative impressions with voters with the months of anti-Mitt advertising he would have needed to revive his own candidacy.
On the flip side, could Huntsman's announcement instead energize conservatives and prompt newfound and united backlash against the evermore presumptive nominee? I'm sure the four candidates dueling for second-place in South Carolina would like to think so, but I find it unlikely they'll have much success. Unless Rick Perry chooses to abandon his campaign—which it seems he should, but won't until he can finish in last place in at least one more state and thereby force more previously-committed voters to shift their support—the the slow sell of the undesired Mitt Romney is likely to continue.
Yesterday's Myrtle Beach GOP Debate produced a number of highlights, especially for Newt Gingrich, but barring a victory for him this coming Saturday, Romney survives to lose another day by further postponing the buyer's remorse it seemed his early success would so surely generate. As the odds decrease of a dramatic rejection of Romney in a meaningful early primary state, the likelihood only increases that distaste for his candidacy and skepticism about his character will manifest itself in the general election, when Republicans can least afford it, not in the weeks ahead.