There's no doubt that South Carolina was a setback for Mitt Romney. But setbacks can be opportunities, too, and if his campaign is smart, the clear South Carolina defeat will serve as a learning opportunity that will make Romney better able to move forward and engender support among all parts of the Republican Party.
Romney isn't a "mean" guy. But the problem is that the moderation of his temperament reinforces what GOP true believers distrust most about him -- the moderation (or perceived moderation) of his policies. Look: He's never sat on a sofa with Nancy Pelosi
and endorsed the concept of global warming, or adding a VAT to pay for social security
(although, like Paul Ryan, Romney has ruminated about replacing part of the code with a VAT). He's never attacked the free markets. And he isn't dogged by a host of personal enemies and regularly sandbagged by his own indiscipline.
But Romney IS mild-mannered when the country is angry, and that's a problem. It makes a lot of people think he either cannot understand their problems, or else doesn't care about them. It makes them wonder if his relatively privileged life has left him too soft to do what it takes to oust Barack Obama. And it makes him seem too eager to be liked -- as if he's running for student body president instead of President of the United States in a time of crisis -- and that makes him seem weak (although I suspect that's hardly the case).
In contrast, Gingrich seems angry (even when he's actually not
), and it helps him. It gives voters something to cheer for, and provides him with the aura of a "fighter" at a time when people want a fight. It leads them to believe he is tough enough to make tough, even unpopular, decisions at a time when they're going to be necessary to get the country back on track. And it makes him come across as more of a conservative (even though he has about as many conservative apostasies as Romney) because, people figure, the angrier one is at Obama's America, the more conservative one must be.
If Romney wants to win hearts as well as minds in the Republican Party, he may need to tap into his angry side -- not with the kind of "I don't appreciate your challenging my integrity" (to paraphrase his comments at Thursday's debate) -- but with real force, both against Gingrich (who has done little for the conservative cause since 1995 but plenty to aggrandize himself) and against Barack Obama for effectively trying to turn the USA into a second-rate country.
And it seems counterintuitive, but he may need to embrace an image of himself as a tough guy who cut companies when they needed it -- and will cut waste in the US government the same kind of way. Some of Romney's "niceness" may have been a preemptive response to the forthcoming attacks from the Obama campaign about how he doesn't care for "regular books." But what he needs to do is channel a little less of George H.W. Bush's patrician manners, and channel a whole lot more of Chris Christie's "hell, yes, I made the tough calls and it was the right thing to do" persona . . . if he can.