South Carolina Republicans on Saturday will have the last real chance to slow Mitt Romney's climb to the GOP presidential nomination. But why would they want to?
If Romney wins in conservative South Carolina, it's nearly impossible to imagine anyone else being the party's pick to take on President Barack Obama. Florida is up next, and an S.C. victory would give Romney a sweep of the three early states and momentum to build on an already strong position there.
Throwing a speed bump in that march would undercut South Carolina Republicans' own interests in a number of ways.
Set aside the intra-party sniping, the hand-wringing over who's a tried-and-true conservative and who isn't. For most Palmetto State Republicans, one goal matters far more than anything else: Beating Obama. There are scenarios in which other Republican candidates could do that, but it's a gamble not worth taking. Presidential elections are won in the middle, not on the fringes, and Romney can take that middle from the president like none of the other GOP candidates can. So if one's goal is to elect a president who will enact a conservative agenda, he is the obvious choice.
The former Massachusetts governor doesn't spark fire in many S.C. bellies, but business-oriented Republicans need not feel queasy when voting for him. Romney is a lifelong leader with remarkable business credentials. From Bain & Co. to the 2002 Olympics, Romney has demonstrated an ability to turn things around in a crisis.
Leading Bain Capital in the 1980s, Romney shined in his role as investor. In January 1991 he returned to Bain & Co. and within two years had rescued it from collapse. Similarly, the Olympics in Salt Lake City were nearly $400 million behind where they needed to be when Romney came in. He took charge and led the Olympics to success, and to a profit.
Republicans are debating Romney's record at Bain and how many jobs he created. But with a stubbornly high S.C. unemployment rate currently at 9.9 percent, is there really any candidate in this primary field who could be better trusted on that front than Romney?
He has as much or more executive experience as any of his rivals. As a Republican governor in a liberal state, he showed the ability to pass important public policy under challenging circumstances, and he helped erase a projected $3 billion deficit.
Some voters in Saturday's primary will surely question Romney's conservative credentials, and it's true that some of his opponents are to the right of him. But while Romney's, er, evolving positions make it hard to know precisely where he stands on all issues, he's no leftist, fiscally nor socially. His policy stances aren't wildly different from his challengers, and he is not running to the left of previous GOP nominees John McCain, George W. Bush, Bob Dole or George H.W. Bush.
Some voters may wish he would throw out the red meat that Rick Santorum and Ron Paul do, but Romney's sensible, authoritative, conservative approach will do more for the cause than theirs will.
S.C. voters can make a point and stub their own toes Saturday. Or they can vote with confidence for the best qualified candidate in the field.