Is Romney damaged?

GOP front-runner Mitt Romney campaigns in Lexington, South Carolina, this week ahead of the state's presidential primary.

Story highlights

  • David Gergen: Mitt Romney's wavering inevitability as GOP nominee is taking fresh hits
  • He says Rick Perry's backing of Newt Gingrich has diminished idea of Romney's electability
  • He says in face of expected Obama attacks, Romney should stick to jobs, economy
  • Gergen: Romney is still likely to win South Carolina, but he must address tax issue
The cloak of inevitability that Mitt Romney has been wearing -- on again, off again -- is suddenly and dramatically off again. Just as he seemed poised to wrap up the GOP nomination in South Carolina, Romney has been hit with a triple dose of bad news:
• Newt Gingrich has been surging among South Carolina voters. His strong debate performance Monday night, coupled with Romney's clumsy responses on his taxes, allowed Gingrich to move up swiftly. This week's CNN/Time/ORC International poll showed Gingrich cutting the Romney lead, and three polls Thursday morning have Gingrich modestly ahead in the state.
• Rick Perry, in bowing out Thursday, gave a full-throated endorsement of Gingrich. Perry commanded little support in South Carolina, but his departure 48 hours before voting starts will inject fresh energy into the Gingrich campaign.
Iowa has now released its final count from its caucuses showing that lo and behold, Rick Santorum has the most votes -- only a 34-vote difference but enough to give Santorum fresh bragging rights. (Many will always wonder how the trajectory might have changed had Santorum been declared the victor on caucus night.)
Who could have imagined this a week ago? We now have a race on our hands in South Carolina, and CNN's debate Thursday night in Charleston -- the last forum before voting starts -- has become a crucial moment.
David Gergen
South Carolina, of course, is only one primary in a long season, so -- even if their candidate were to lose here -- the Romney forces remain confident about Florida 10 days later and other races to come. By any measure, they are much better prepared for the long haul than every other campaign, which usually spells ultimate victory. And it remains to be seen what Marianne Gingrich, the speaker's second wife, will reveal that could damage her ex-husband's candidacy in her interview Thursday on ABC's "Nightline."
Still, one senses yet another shift in the political landscape. It's not just that in the past eight elections (all the way back to Ronald Reagan in 1980), the winner of the South Carolina primary has gone on to become the nominee of the Republican Party. A loss here would carry heavy symbolism for Romney.
But the bigger point is that Romney's strongest calling card with GOP voters -- his electability -- has become somewhat diminished of late. A little-noticed Pew poll this week found that over the course of the recent campaign (November to now), Romney's favorability rating among all registered voters has slipped from 38% to 33% and his overall favorable/unfavorable rating is 33%-47%. In the same survey, President Barack Obama has moved to a 5-point lead over Romney in a head-to-head match, 50%-45%.
Jabs between Gingrich, Romney heat up
Jabs between Gingrich, Romney heat up

    JUST WATCHED

    Jabs between Gingrich, Romney heat up

MUST WATCH

Jabs between Gingrich, Romney heat up 01:01
Perry: No viable path forward
Perry: No viable path forward

    JUST WATCHED

    Perry: No viable path forward

MUST WATCH

Perry: No viable path forward 03:08
Searching for the 'real Romney'
Searching for the 'real Romney'

    JUST WATCHED

    Searching for the 'real Romney'

MUST WATCH

Searching for the 'real Romney' 07:12
Romney: Obama 'lives in Fantasyland'
Romney: Obama 'lives in Fantasyland'

    JUST WATCHED

    Romney: Obama 'lives in Fantasyland'

MUST WATCH

Romney: Obama 'lives in Fantasyland' 01:01
The Romney team can point out that in the 2008 campaign, all three top competitors -- Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain -- saw some slippage in their favorability ratings over the course of the primaries. Goes with the territory, they will say. Then, too, other polls this year show Romney in a dead heat with Obama and running ahead in several key swing states.
Still, heading into this campaign cycle, political pros know that the Obama team has yet to unleash the full fury of its attacks against Romney -- attacks they know how to do better than anyone else these days. And it is apparent that in the way the national conversation is changing, the Obama folks -- with help from liberal friends in the media -- are steering the debate away from jobs toward income inequality.
As nominee, Romney will command much higher ground if the election turns on how to create the most jobs than if it becomes a slugfest over fairness. Watching Romney squirm these past days over his tax returns, Democrats are increasingly confident about trend lines. That's why it is so important for Romney to find better ways to address his taxes and wealth, starting Thursday night.
The bottom line is that Romney still has the lead position in the race for the Republican nomination. The polls also suggest that he will win South Carolina -- that just as McCain won South Carolina in 2008 when avid conservatives in 2008 split their vote between Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson, so now Romney can successfully play divide and conquer against Gingrich and Santorum.
But the momentum here seems to be shifting, and if Romney is bloodied in South Carolina -- where he once had a 20-point lead -- we are in for a longer, more unpredictable race. Tune in Thursday night!
Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter and join the conversation on Facebook.