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Mittmentum Hits South Carolina!

Columbia, SC

Jon Cohn wrote about "Mittmentum" coming out of Michigan. This is what Mittmentum sounds like: It sounds like Patrick Garrison, a student volunteer for Romney who endured the humiliation in New Hampshire, and is now manning the door at an overflowing day-after-Michigan rally in the University of South Carolina's Russell House. "Everything has changed," he breathes to me. "I can't even tell you." 

Everything hasn't changed -- Romney still hasn't got a shot of winning South Carolina, a state where he had rented the very best operatives -- but no matter. The mood inside the Russell House ballroom can only be described as one of intense relief. The main function of the Republican primaries, thus far, seems to be to allow each candidate's core of supporters, first Huckabee's, then McCain's, now Romney's, to no longer feel embarrassed for themselves. When Romney walks onto the stage, the crowd of Mitt-loving USC students next to me, primed with huge "Change Begins With Us" signs handed out by the candidate's advance team, respond to him with the wild abandon of lovestruck women in early films, when every gesture was overdone for the camera. They send up a ceaseless wail composed of the following phrases, repeated:

There he is, oh YES!
Be mine, Mitt!
He-man Mitt!
He looked at me! He praised me with his eyes!

Now, after hoisting themselves out of their pits of irrelevance (poor Fred Thompson hasn't managed this step yet), the new challenge for Huckabee, McCain, and Romney is to prove that their momentum is the real momentum, the hottest momentum. As it happens, Romney -- with his overwhelming need to be everything to everyone and skimp on no detail (you like Gitmo? I'll double Gitmo!) -- is, aesthetically, the best prepared to deliver. To put the visual stamp of authenticity on his momentum, he's lined up more smiling family members, supporters, and rented flacks up on the USC stage with him than I have ever seen trotted out at a campaign appearance -- they're in long rows, three deep, and to make room for Mitt an extension of the stage has to jut out into the crowd, like Bono's catwalk on U2's Elevation Tour. The loudspeakers pump out "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" and a Postal Service song that goes, "They will see us waving from such great heights," which, in campaign context, makes you conjure up images not of a simple inauguration but of a deification.

"In Washington [Tuesday night] they were worrying," he yells out to the crowd, which frantically flails its tentacles of Romney signs in response. "They could hear us coming!"

To top the spectacle off, Romney whips out a story I haven't heard him use before. Google tells me he last spoke of it in 2004 or 2005, although this could be wrong. It's the tale of Vonetta Flowers, the African-American bobsled brakewoman who competed in the 2002 Olympics. She chose loyalty over ambition when she decided to stay with her friend and training partner on Sled 2 instead of accepting an offer to join the more competitive Sled 1. But, of course, Sled 2 beat everybody. And it gets even better than that. "She later found out, she was pregnant with twins at the time!" Romney exults. Flowers got to have it all: The moral high ground, the gold medal, even the joy of pregnancy. It's a wonderfully apropos story for this Romney moment. Romney was the boy who had everything before Iowa: The presidential looks, the vast fundraising, the poll numbers. After Iowa, people said this perfection just couldn't have lasted. But, you see, you can have everything!

In the back, in the press section, five or six weary journalists and a few obligatory TV crews languish, rarely even bothering to heave themselves up out of their chairs to look at the candidate while he speaks. They fiddle with their BlackBerries. The Republican campaigns' pressure to keep their momentum superheated is a strange thing, because, on some level, it doesn't really matter, as the low media interest suggests. Who will be the nominee seems to depend more now on the vicissitudes of February 5, on the vagaries of delegate counts, and even on the convention. We ain't seen nothin' yet.

-- Eve Fairbanks