Political Reporters: 'Lively Days' Ahead in SC Race
National political reporters focus on frontrunners Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich at a panel discussion at the University of South Carolina.
With just two days until the S.C. Republican primary, the latest poll puts Mitt Romney in the lead.
But three national political reporters speaking to a crowd at the University of South Carolina Wednesday night said after a tough week for the former Massachussetts governor, it may not be so easy for him to stay in the front through Saturday.
The reporters - from the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Chicago Sun-Times - agreed that Romney's stumbling answer during the Myrtle Beach debate about releasing his tax returns hurt him.
Dan Balz, a political reporter for the Washington Post, said the way Romney handled the tax return question during the debate made it an issue.
"Monday he tried to duck the question at first," Balz said. "And when asked again, he said he would 'probably' do something about it in April."
On Tuesday, Romney told reporters in Florence that he pays about a 15 percent tax rate because his income comes from past investments, Balz said. Romney also said that the more than $370,000 he makes in speaker's fees every years is "not very much."
Lynn Sweet, Washington Bureau Chief at the Chicago Sun-Times, said Romney's "not very much" comment made $370,000 sound like "small change" and distanced him from voters.
"The Romney campaign has taken a pummelling this week," Sweet said. "He has been cautious about releasing his tax returns because the flack that he would get for not releasing is less than he'll get for releasing them."
Both Sweet and Balz agreed that Romney's income and tax returns will most likely come up during Thursday night's Charleston debate.
Romney's tough week gives the other candidates a window of opportunity, Balz said. And the candidate most likely to take advantage of that opportunity is Newt Gingrich, he said.
Although the CNN poll released Wednesday shows Romney with a 10-point lead over Gingrich, the interviews for the poll were conducted between Jan. 13 and 17. Only one of those days was after Monday night's Myrtle Beach debate.
The poll may not have reflected Gingrich's strong finish in the debate, Balz said.
Jeff Zeleny, a national political correspondent for the New York Times, said Gingrich's performance in the Myrtle Beach debate was his strongest performance since December.
"Gingrich is standing six feet tall," Zeleny said. "And he's confidently predicting that he's going to be the nominee."
Sweet said Romney's campaign is aware that Gingrich could be closing in on Romney. His campaign is focusing on two things: winning key Republican endorsements and diminishing Gingrich, she said.
The other candidates aren't as much of a threat to Romney, Balz said.
While Santorum finished strong in Iowa, he couldn't translate that energy to New Hampshire. Balz also said Santorum hasn't used the endorsement of a group Christian leaders to his advantage in South Carolina.
Perry entered the race at the top of the polls but underperformed in a number of debates, Balz said.
That left Republicans with Romney, who they have been reluctant to endorse, Balz said.
"He has been a candidate who Republicans see as electable, as their best candidate to defeat Barack Obama, but not necessarily the true conservative," Balz said, "not necessarily the one they think most highly of, one who many Republicans don't think is authentic."
"I think what is most striking at this point in the Republican the race is that you have in Mitt Romney I guess what you would say is the least dominant frontrunner Republicans have had in many years," Balz said. "And yet it is possible that he could win the Republican nomination faster and easier than anybody ever has in the modern era."
If Romney does win in South Carolina, he'll be unstoppable, Balz said.
On the other hand, if he doesn't win South Carolina, the race in Florida will be a struggle, Sweet said.
"If Romney finishes with a plurality win in South Carolina, it's good. If he finishes with a majority win, it's great," Sweet said. "If he finishes a strong second, it presents a problem because it will probably follow him to Florida."
In other words, South Carolina is a pivotal state for Romney.
"We'll have a pretty lively last few days in this state," Blaz said, "beginning with the debate tomorrow night."