Try as some might to deprecate it, there’s no denying that Mitt Romney’s smashing victory in the New Hampshire primary has firmly established him as the all-but inevitable Republican presidential nominee. The final tally raised Romney’s total of the vote to nearly 40 percent in a five-man race in the state and a 17-point margin of victory over his nearest competitor. Even more important, New Hampshire’s results re-emphasized the fact that there is no single viable conservative alternative to Romney. That puts him in an even stronger position than expected to romp to another victory next week in South Carolina.
That leaves disgruntled conservatives with a difficult decision. Though no one expects Romney’s opponents to roll over for him with so many states left to vote, the vicious attacks on Romney’s business career from Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry have done as much to discredit them as the former head of Bain Capital. The spectacle of conservatives trying to sound like Occupy Wall Street protesters in order to smear Romney hasn’t hurt him so much as it has made them look ridiculous, especially when it is increasingly obvious that Romney is the only Republican running who can beat President Obama. In the coming weeks, conservatives must decide whether their unhappiness with Romney is enough to cause them to abandon their principles and to aid Democratic attacks on the man who will almost certainly be their party’s standard-bearer in November.
While Romney has struggled at times to articulate a coherent defense of capitalism, he found his voice last night during his victory speech when he noted that President Obama and “desperate Republicans” were trying “to put free enterprise on trial.” His declaration that he has faith in the people, not government, was exactly the message he needs to emphasize the rest of the campaign. Even more to the point, by making this election about defending the private sector against Obama’s belief in big government, he can reassure conservatives that despite his faults and his difficulty in connecting with ordinary voters, he is clearly on their side of the great issues facing the nation.
During the next week and a half, Gingrich and Perry will be launching their last-ditch effort to convince Tea Partiers and social conservatives that Romney can be stopped. But if they continue with their hypocritical trashing of his business record, all they will accomplish is to destroy what is left of their own tattered reputations. Rick Santorum has wisely stayed out of that scrum and is hoping to galvanize the support of social conservatives to stay in contention. But his disappointing fifth-place finish in New Hampshire may have dissipated the momentum he got from his strong performance in Iowa. Moreover, with well-funded conservative foes in Gingrich and Perry going all out in South Carolina, it’s hard to see how Santorum emerges from the pack to beat Romney.
While we can expect to hear more about Romney’s flaws, the rest of this primary season will primarily be about conservatives learning to make their peace with him. Though he has a long way to go before his nomination is secured, sooner or later his party’s right-wing activists are going to have to realize that if they want to defeat Obama, he is their only hope.