NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Mitt Romney's final blitz of South Carolina took him to the spacious convention center in this suburb, which I have come to know too well. It wasn't too crowded (to be fair, I'm going to obsess over everybody's crowd today), and the crowd wasn't 100 percent Romney's. A Tea Party Patriots convention, happening in the same building, gave easy access to some Romney critics who stood in the back, observing. Judd Saul, treasurer of Patriots for Christ, sported a big "Rick Santorum: The Conservative Choice" button, and chatted with many a foreign journalist.
At kick-off, the room looked like this:
At least 100 reporters filled out the room, there to witness the campaign in full-on surrogate mode. Romney's campaign bus drove in, stage left, to deliver the candidate, his wife, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and new endorser Gov. Bob McDonnell. Haley drafted the candidate into solidarity with her causes. "There's no excuse not to protest the integrity of the vote," she said, referring to an ID law currently blocked after a successful DOJ challenge. McDonnell did Romney the great favor of pre-quoting some of his winningest lines, and reminding the crowd that the candidate had admirable values. (Needled about this after the speech, McDonnell said he was not, not making a backhand reference to Newt Gingrich.)
And then: The Romney stump speech! It differed from the old, pre-Gingrich surge speech in only a couple of respects. There were no references to Gingrich or any other opponents. There was just more detail than usual about Romney's business career. "The administration wasted $500 million on Solyndra!" he said. "Do you know how much we loaned Staples when it began? Five million. And we didn't meet in some glass castle. We met in the back of an old strip mall."
When it wrapped, reporters grabbed the surrogates; Politico's Reid Wilson got McDonnell to admit it would be better for Romney's tax returns to come out "sooner than later." I asked Haley if Gingrich had benefitted -- at her guy's expense -- for blocking and deriding John King when he attemped to ask about Gingrich's ex-wife Marianne.
"He handled it the way you'd expect Newt to handle it," she said. "I don't think there were any surprises there."
But Haley's one of America's proven experts in spinning scandals into gold. In 2010, the political blogger Will Folks claimed to have had an affair with the married future governor; Haley denied it and benefited from a surge of angry Republican support. These stories play out differently for male and female politicians, sure; I was still curious as to how Haley thought Newt could use this.
"The people of South Carolina are very funny," she said. "They look at the combination of jobs, spending, and the economy -- but they also look at how you handle your emotions in tough times."