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Gary Younge

Mitt Romney:
Mitt Romney's bruising Republican primary progress

Pity Mitt Romney. He's the first Republican in recent history to take both New Hampshire and Iowa in the primary process. His double-digit victory last night, was emphatic by any standard. Barring some cataclysmic revelation or humiliating gaffe, he will be the Republican presidential nominee in November.

Yet, somehow, even as his triumphs put his nomination beyond question, they do not leave the wisdom of selecting him as a candidate beyond doubt. The Republican hierarchy has already written the check for Romney, but already, you get a sense of buyer's remorse.

There were some empirical reasons for this. For all the money and effort, Romney has found precious few converts. He ran for president in 2008 and has not stopped running since. But he came away from Iowa last week with, literally, six more votes than he got four years ago. Tuesday night in New Hampshire, he fared better than in 2008, but hardly well enough to dispel angst about his inability to connect. In a field that is weak and split, and before an electorate that is volatile, he is holding steady; no more.

The lower Republican turnout, compared with 2008, suggests a base that has gone from being euphoric following congressional victories in 2010 to feeling depressed at the choice before them now. Also worrying for the GOP, in a swing state like New Hampshire, is the fact that although Romney is painted as a moderate – which he isn't – independent voters, who can vote in this primary, broke for Ron Paul.

Moreover, a Romney victory in New Hampshire had already been discounted by all but Jon Huntsman because Romney has a holiday home there and was the governor of neighboring Massachusetts. Libertarian rather than evangelical – state motto: "Live free or die" – the more conservative candidates may have stumped in the Granite State, but they were buying ads in South Carolina, where they regard Romney as more vulnerable.

The discussion about who came second and third is now strictly for the pundits. The only two contenders considered viable in the last two months – New Gingrich and Rick Santorum – battled it out for fourth and fifth and barely made double digits in percentage terms. The question at this stage is not whether Romney will come in first, but how damaged he will be by the time he reaches the finishing line and prepares to face Obama.

If this last week was anything to go by, then he might be in bad shape. To the common charge sheet that he is inauthentic, shifting his positions on everything from abortion to healthcare to suit the audience, came attacks on his business experience – the very record he is running on. Gingrich received $5m from a wealthy mentor to run a film in South Carolina against Romney's time as a partner at the private equity firm, Bain Capital, which Romney co-founded.

"Is capitalism really about the ability of a handful of rich people to manipulate the lives of thousands of other people and walk off with the money?" asked Gingrich.

Others honed in on a remark Romney made at one rally where he argued consumers should have more "choice" in selecting their health insurers. "It … means if you don't like what they do, you can fire them," he said. "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me."

On Rick Perry's website, you could download Romney saying he liked to fire people, while Huntsman stated: "Governor Romney enjoys firing people; I enjoy creating jobs."

Gingrich insisted his attacks were necessary if Romney were to be tested before doing battle with Obama. "If somebody's going to crumble, they'd better crumble before the nomination," he said. "We'll see if he has broad shoulders and can stand the heat."

This would make more sense if Gingrich were posing a serious challenge. But to adapt a phrase of Donald Rumsfeld's, the Republicans have to go to war with the general they've got. If they insist on applying too much heat, they might just be softening him up so that Obama can finish him off.

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