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Can Romney win by losing South Carolina?

By Paul Sracic, Special to CNN
updated 9:24 AM EST, Fri January 20, 2012
Mitt Romney greets supporters in Charleston, South Carolina, on January 19, the day Rick Perry dropped out of the race.
Mitt Romney greets supporters in Charleston, South Carolina, on January 19, the day Rick Perry dropped out of the race.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Paul Sracic: If Mitt Romney wins in S.C., the "bandwagon effect" sets off winning streak
  • But that means a longer time for Romney to be the sole focus of attention, Sracic says
  • Sracic says the media and opponents can zero in on his weaknesses without distraction

Editor's note: Paul Sracic is a professor and chairman of the Department of Political Science at Youngstown State University in Ohio.

(CNN) -- Rick Perry's decision to pull out of the Republican primary before the South Carolina vote on Saturday could provide just the boost that Newt Gingrich, or even Rick Santorum, needs to edge out Mitt Romney. Should this happen, would it be bad for the former Massachusetts governor? In the long run, it might actually help him.

Let me explain. If Romney were to win the South Carolina primary, it's hard to imagine him losing in Florida 10 days later. The bandwagon effect, where voters gravitate to the candidate they think will probably win, will go into overdrive.

It already gave Romney a huge push after Iowa and New Hampshire although Santorum is claiming victory in Iowa after new numbers have come in. Romney, nevertheless, is favored to win nearly all of the Republican primaries or caucuses that will be held in February, beginning with Nevada, where Mormon voters made up 25% of caucus participants in 2008.

So, even though a very small percentage of the delegates to Republican National Convention will have been allocated, the GOP primary could be all but over by early February, and we could embark on one of the longest general election campaigns in history.

Paul Sracic
Paul Sracic

The Romney campaign would surely be happy at this development, but a quick end to the competitive phase of the Republican primary contest may not be in the candidate's best interests.

When a sitting president is running for re-election, it is at least partially a referendum on the incumbent. This is clearly what the Republicans want. But a short Republican primary gives the Obama team much more of an opportunity to convert this into a referendum on their opponent.

Party primaries can be divisive and expensive, but they offer distractions that keep the campaigns, the public and the media from being able to focus solely on one candidate. A perfect example was provided four years ago.

Republicans often complain that candidate Barack Obama was not properly vetted by the media during the 2008 campaign. Until June of that year, however, Obama was only part of the story. In the days leading up to the 2008 New Hampshire primary, the public's attention was riveted not on Obama and his qualifications for the presidency, but on his rival Hillary Clinton tearing up at a campaign appearance in Portsmouth.

Obama also benefited from the media's fascination with Bill Clinton. One can even argue that conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh's "operation chaos" campaign, in which he encouraged listeners to vote for Hillary Clinton to lengthen the Democratic primary fight, actually benefited Obama.

It may seem surprising that Romney's dealings at Bain Capital only recently became a campaign issue. After all, he has been an official candidate for president since June. But Romney has been protected not only by all the primary opponents, but also by volatile polls. One after another, a challenger has soared up in popularity. Romney was the presumed front-runner from Day One, so when someone else appeared to be competitive, it became a story. Then, of course, came the media scrutiny of each of these challengers.

The result: Stories about Michele Bachmann's church; Rick Perry's decision to support mandated Gardasil vaccines; allegations of sexual harassment on the part of Herman Cain; Newt Gingrich's work for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; and Rick Santorum's views on contraception. It is not that Romney was ignored, but he was forced to share the spotlight.

Every candidate has some weakness. The success of a campaign will often depend upon how well a candidate is able to deflect attacks. Although primary opponents are likely to point out these flaws, their criticism is usually more muted than that from another party. And the longer a candidate can avoid being attacked full on, the better.

Republicans candidates are scuffling among themselves, but they all want Obama out of the White House. Whether they are on the campaign trail or in a debate, none misses an opportunity to go after Obama.

Obama is in the position of a dazed boxer. He keeps getting punched but has four opponents he needs to hit back. The longer the Republican primary goes on, the longer each candidate avoids suffering too many direct and powerful blows.

Although I doubt that the Romney campaign staff would agree, in the end, a Gingrich victory in South Carolina might be the best thing that can happen to him.

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The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Paul Sracic.

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