Supporters of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney cheer as he takes the stage.
COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA—It was hard not to feel bad for the handful of activists—including a Gordon Gekko impersonator—who stood protesting Mitt Romney, as hundreds of people poured into a warehouse on the outskirts of town for a chance to see the former Massachusetts governor. The group, called South Carolina Forward Progress, has dedicated itself to painting Romney’s time at Bain Capital as an exercise in “job destruction.”
“For so many South Carolinians, Mitt Romney has been the prince of pain. His work at Bain is responsible for tens of thousands of hardworking men and women losing their jobs and putting their families' well-being at risk. He represents everything wrong with our system, he represents Wall Street greed over people, and the worst that we have,” said Lachlan McIntosh, who founded the group last spring.
Unfortunately for McIntosh, the attendees at Romney’s rally were less than disappointed with Romney’s previous career on Wall Street. “He did what he was supposed to do. He made money for investors and created venture capital for other entrepreneurs,” said Kathy Sill, a retired financial analyst who describes herself as “curious” about Romney. “I appreciate what he did and wish there were more companies like Bain out there.”
What’s more, as was the case with his rally in Charleston last week, there were no doubts about the governor’s conservatism, and there was a real willingness to forgive his past moderation. “Throughout my life, I’ve changed my positions on lots of different things,” said Ken Bogan, who has been a Romney supporter since 2008. “I give him all of the breaks that I give myself and other people.”
Likewise, Matt Currie—another longtime Romney supporter—was confident that Romney would take the country in a conservative direction if elected president. “If there are Democrats, he’ll have to give and take, but that’s what always happens,” said Currie, acknowledging the extent to which Republicans can’t get everything they want.
As for Romney, he arrived 20 minutes late, and after an introduction from Governor Nikki Haley, gave his typical stump speech, which clocked in at a little less than 12 minutes. But the actual content of Romney’s speech was far less important than the atmosphere, which was jubilant. This is what momentum looks like: hundreds of people, eager to see their standard-bearer in the fight against Obama.
Romney wasn’t alone last night. If you drove ten minutes down the road, to Springdale, South Carolina, you would have seen a row of flyers for “Rick Santorum” leading to a large house, where the former Pennsylvania senator held a quiet question-and-answer session with a roomful of supporters. During the back-and-forth, Santorum promised to “restore” the country’s “fundamental” values and attacked progressives for the country’s problems.
Indeed, in an impressive bit of bizarro history, he blamed Franklin Roosevelt—and his liberal supporters—for the Great Depression. “FDR’s cabinet was a bunch of liberal professors, who sought to make America liberal with progressive policies. And look what happened—a decade-long depression,” said Santorum, who apparently doesn’t know that the Depression began three years earlier, before FDR took office.
All of that is to say that the shift in tone—from Romney’s event to Santorum’s—was stunning. Where Romney was sunny and optimistic, Santorum was dour and aggressive. And where Santorum was struggling to generate excitement, Romney was riding a wave of enthusiasm.