Expect Mitt Romney’s work at Bain Capital to be a hot topic at tonight’s debate in South Carolina when the dwindling Republican presidential field yet again takes the debate stage.
The former Massachusetts governor will likely face more questions about his business practices at the private equity firm he founded, which has come under attack in recent days with rivals Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry asking whether Romney’s former company killed more jobs than it created.
“That’s an issue that Romney has not, I think, really defended himself,” Emory University political science professor Merle Black told The Daily Caller.
“That’s an issue of vulnerability for him. So any of the other candidates — and Gingrich may well take the lead — you know, that’s an obvious one. I would be really shocked if Gingrich didn’t raise that issue tonight.”
With signs that the attacks on Bain may have backfired, it will be telling to see how hard Romney’s rivals attack him on the issue.
Black, who is considered among the foremost experts on Southern politics, said the issue of Bain Capital “may be a little less [salient] in South Carolina than some other places,” but remains significant considering some of Romney’s misstatements.
He was specifically referring to a statement Romney made in New Hampshire. At an event before the state’s first-in-the-nation primary, Romney said, “I like being able to fire people.”
In context it is clear Romney was referring to getting rid of an insurance company that wasn’t providing a good service — not struggling workers — but the statement has been used by Romney’s opponents to portray him as out of touch.
Monday night’s showdown will also serve as reminder that the Republican field continues to get smaller: only five podiums will be on stage at the Fox News-sponsored debate after former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman’s decision to withdrawal from the race and endorse Romney.
“Today I am suspending my campaign and supporting the candidate who is best-equipped to defeat the president and return conservative leadership to the White House: Governor Mitt Romney,” Huntsman said in a message to supporters on Monday.
With Huntsman out of the race, expect former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum to spar with Gingrich and Perry as the three fight to stay alive in the presidential contest. A weak finish in the state’s primary is likely to force at least one of the candidates out of the race.
“Tonight’s critical debate in South Carolina is one of our last chances to make the case for Newt to the voters in South Carolina,” Gingrich’s campaign manager Michael Krull wrote in an email to supporters Monday afternoon.
Way down in the polls, Black doesn’t believe Perry is likely to see a significant resurgence. But for Gingrich and Santorum to stay relevant, he said it would help if they could cut a presidential image at the debate.
“They have to look like reasonable [people] whom you could imagine as President of the United States,” Black said.
“Gingrich has to come across as someone who has good judgment, is not flying off the handle, is not engaging in kind of erratic kinds of comments. You know, we’ve seen many different Gingriches here at these debates over the last several weeks. Gingrich needs to look like a president.”
For Romney, Black said, his goal should be to “look like someone who keeps his cool, who anticipates these attacks and then has reasonable answers. He needs to look like a president and not someone who is on the offensive.”
Saturday’s primary in South Carolina is crucial for the anti-Romneys, along with Texas Rep. Ron Paul, to stop Romney’s momentum after victories in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Republican consultant Jim Dyke, who has offices in South Carolina, told TheDC the he’s watching to see if “anyone is able to redefine the terms of the debate for the grassroots” with just five days until Palmetto State voters head to the polls.
To those who believe that Romney’s historic wins in both Iowa and New Hampshire have already secured him the nomination and perhaps even a win in South Carolina, Black cautions that the nothing is ever over until the voters have their say.
“We don’t know who is going to win,” he said, speaking of Saturday’s South Carolina primary. “Literally, we do not know who is going to win. There may be a surprise on Saturday.”
The current RealClearPolitics South Carolina polling average has Romney leading the state with nearly 30 percent support, followed by Gingrich at 22 percent, Paul at 15 percent, Santorum at 14.3 percent and Perry at 5.7 percent.
Fox News and the Wall Street Journal are sponsoring the Myrtle Beach debate. It begins at 9:00 p.m. ET.