Mitt Romney knows how to read a poll. With the numbers swinging in Newt Gingrich’s favor on the day of the South Carolina primary, the Romney team is abruptly lowering expectations and laying the groundwork for a tougher than anticipated race.
“I think I said from the very beginning South Carolina is an uphill battle for a guy from Massachusetts,” Romney told reporters on Friday. “I knew that we’re battling hard.”
It’s standard fare to tamp down the stakes going into a race, but it’s nonetheless a pretty jarring transition heading into a primary that many thought would end the Republican nomination fight once and for all. Gingrich, for his part, has said he expects Romney will win the nomination if he takes South Carolina.
After mostly avoiding attacks on Gingrich since his collapse in Iowa in New Hampshire, Romney’s campaign has quickly returned to the fray. On Friday, they challenged Gingrich to release a Congressional investigation into his alleged ethics violations. But, as TPM reported, the report is actually already public.
Gingrich’s challenge to Romney to release his tax returns, however, is quickly gaining traction. Romney says he’ll make public at least his most recent return in April, but he got booed at Thursday’s debate for hedging on the details and timing of the release.
“If there’s anything in there thats going to help us lose the election we should know,” Gingrich, who released his own returns for the year that very night, said in response. “If there’s nothing in there why not release it?”
Adding to the pressure, the Iowa state GOP recently declared Rick Santorum the official winner of the Iowa caucuses, meaning Romney will have only won one state — and one in which he was heavily favored — heading into Florida next week should Gingrich prevail on Saturday. Add it up and some Romney aides are openly talking about a prolonged primary, an idea that seemed almost unthinkable just a few short days ago.
“I think you’re going to see the same kind of long slog that you saw in ‘76, with Ford and Reagan, that it took the whole thing to win,” Former NH Gov. John Sununu, a key Romney surrogate, told reporters on Friday. “[Romney]’s never suggested one or two or three primaries or caucuses would make the difference. The whole campaign has been designed to go through the long slog.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.