As Mitt Romney maintains his lead in South Carolina -- by a wide or slim margin, depending on which poll you look at -- the likelihood that he will ultimately clinch the GOP nomination continues to creep higher. It's not a fait accompli, of course. The vast majority of delegates remain uncommitted, various consituencies are coalescing behind other candidates, and Republican voters in 48 states haven't even voted yet. But as none other than Newt Gingrich has admitted, if Romney can pull off a January sweep (and he's looking strong in Florida), the race is effectively over. No other campaign appears to have the resources or organization required to fight a lengthy war of attrition against Romney. Just ask Jon Huntsman. If Romney is to be slowed or stopped, South Carolina must serve as the firewall. Palmetto Staters go to the polls in six days, and the polls linked above suggest that the much discussed "vulture capitalism" attacks are backfiring spectacularly. Their target has gained significant support, while the three candidates most responsible for the Bain bash have sunk to a combined 15 percent in Reuters' new survey.
For Romney foes, the window for game changers is closing. There are four scheduled debates between now and the end of the month; two in South Carolina (including one this evening, which our own Katie Pavlich is covering in Myrtle Beach), and two in Florida. We'll see if one Not Romney finally emerges, and if he can devise an effective strategy to deliver political body blows against the frontrunner. Regardless of how the primary results turn out, these debates will be valuable because they'll almost certainly revisit the Bain controversy. Romney's campaign has been caught somewhat flat-footed by this vein of criticism, despite a decent initial recovery. While Team Romney might be forgiven for not anticipating these Michael Moore-style arrows during the Republican primary, they must know Democrats will beat this drum endlessly throughout the summer and fall. Half-baked statistics and incomplete answers won't cut it. As I argued last week, it's high time for the Romney campaign to start refining and sharpening their approach to refuting Bain demagoguery and counter-punching. (AFP has helpfully telegraphed one potential tactic, seen here). I recently discussed this entire issue with Fox Business Network's Gerri Willis. My sparring partner in the segment was Democrat strategist Lanny Davis. As you watch this clip, try to play "spot Lanny's (one) talking point:"
If Romney emerges as the nominee, Davis' loaded questions about Romney's dealings will instantly morph into outright accusations from the entire Democrat-MSM echo chamber. The Romney camp has had days to chew over their stats and fashion thoroigh responses to this stuff. The upcoming debates will provide a clear indication ofwhether the former Massachusetts governor is prepared to handle these types of questions (even if his rivals back off and decline to raise them, the media will happily push the point). If Romney provides sharp, tight, and persuasive answers, he could land a knockout blow for the Not Mitt movement. If he falters or gets irritable and defensive, many Republican voters will rightfully worry whether he'd crumble under Democrats' general election class warfare barrage. That consternation could reopen the door for an alternative option to catch fire. Any way you slice it, this will be a hugely important -- possibly decisive -- week in the GOP primary process.
UPDATE - A new Insider Advantage poll has Romney ahead by 11 points, followed by Gingrich, Paul, and Santorum.
UPDATE II - Does anyone run more ruthless ads than Ron Paul? Target: Santorum.