GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Let’s hope Mitt Romney recovers from his South Carolina detour and wraps this thing up soon, because I’m not sure the agitated ghost of George Romney can take much more of this. And no, I’m not referring to Mitt’s refusal to follow his father’s lead and release a dozen years of tax returns. I’m talking about his attempt to ratchet himself and his rhetoric ever higher to satisfy a sullen GOP electorate.
Romney’s diagnosis is on target: one Newt Gingrich voter after another today told me that what they prefer about him over Romney is his ability to tell it straight. “It” being that the country is going to hell.
In response, Romney is doing his level best to catch up, and the result is hard to watch. Of course, he’s been going on about Barack Obama’s European welfare dreams for a while now. But the Romney I saw Friday night at a rally here was distinctly harder-edged than the one I saw in Iowa and New Hampshire. For starters, his introductions in South Carolina have been coming from Gov. Nikki Haley, the Tea Party favorite (a title she may have lost by endorsing Milquetoast Mitt after he gave her $60,000 for her 2010 campaign.) Haley’s intro was built around describing in dark terms her state’s endless battle with the Obama administration, and declaring that his conflict would end once Mitt was in the White House. The fronts of this battle? The National Labor Relations Board’s Boeing ruling, the Department of Justice’s fight against South Carolina’s immigration law and against its voter ID law. The first two more or less fit in with what Romney’s been talking about elsewhere (though I only heard him rail about “right to work” here in South Carolina.) But voter ID? Yes, the son of the Republican governor who was such a strong supporter of the civil rights movement that he arranged a Detroit march in coordination with the one in Selma, Ala. stood there and grinned as Haley declared that “President Romney [will say] that’s our right,” to determine who can and can’t vote in South Carolina. Sorry, Pop -- hey, he’s running for office, for pete’s sake.
Then came Romney himself. Gone was his customary token concession that Obama is a “good man” who is just in over his head. Instead, he launched straight into his attack on the president, who had a plan to “fundamentally transform America” when “what we should do in this country is to restore the values that made us the greatest nation on earth.” He added a sarcastic line that I hadn’t heard in Iowa and New Hampshire about how Obama think it’s better to create jobs through top-down ventures like Solyndra because he is “so very, very intelligent.” And he went on a caustic riff about Obama’s “pretty please” request to Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for the downed drone. The crowd ate it up, with especially loud applause coming from the 100 Virginia Republicans that Gov. Bob McDonnell had brought down with him to announce his endorsement of Romney. Their raucousness seemed to buoy Romney -- this was what had been missing for him all week. “We Need Mitt!” they chanted. “You know what?” he shouted. “You’re going to get me!”
They probably will, but not yet. Amid today’s relentless downpours here, Mitt’s coronation will in all likelihood have to take a rain check. He’ll go on to Florida and will, presumably, ramp the rhetoric up further, talking in ever more stark terms about how Obama is transforming the country into a place we don’t recognize. The question is how well he (and the ghosts of Romneys past) will recognize himself when it’s all done.