GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s Achilles' heel was exposed in the final minutes of what was an otherwise good debate performance Monday night. He played offense, engaged Gingrich directly faring better than some members of the media and made a bolder than usual defense of his wealth.
But when asked about what he has done to advance the cause of conservatism, Romney fumbled. He started by discussing his family, certainly a virtue for him, but struggled to offer the “red meat” the question called for.
It left you wondering if the former Massachusetts governor has the soul or conscious of a conservative who understands the fundamentals of the movement and is really our best man for this moment.
Conservatives need to know they can count on Mr. Romney to both feel and vocalize their pain. Here are challenges facing Mitt Romney as he struggles to hold on to his front runner status and win his party's nomination:
1. Can Romney Effectively Articulate Conservative Values?
At a time when we are strongly motivated by our dissatisfaction with President Obama and angry at the socialist-democratic direction he is talking the country, conservatives are asking “is Romney the fighter we want to take into this battle?” Can he, as Newt Gingrich does so ably articulate the American values that are the cornerstone of conservatism?
2. Can He Bring in Independents and Even Disaffected Democrats?
Importantly, when looking at the bigger electoral picture, it’s not just conservatives who are seeking an alternative voice.
According to the Real Clear Politics average of opinion polls 65% of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track.
In a recent ABC poll nearly 80% of Americans felt the economy wasn’t improving or getting worse.
In that same poll only 38% of independent voters believed President Obama deserved re-election.
That begs the question, on a broader level, can Romney passionately and effectively represent the sentiment of independent voters who share our frustration over the president’s policies, too?
3. Understanding the Real Message of the South Carolina Primary
A general misperception of the results from South Carolina is that they were from an electorate that was abnormally angry, mainly due to higher than average unemployment and a historic tendency toward rebellion.
In reality, South Carolina may be the most accurate reflection of the national mood that both President Obama and the eventual Republican nominee will face in the general election.
That level of anger may actually be the norm in today’s political landscape, so the Republican nominee must be able to marshal that opposition into our column.
It’s not clear Romney can do that, hence the new concerns about his electability.
4. Staying Focused on Winning the Nomination Fight
The Romney campaign has made the classic mistake of running a general election strategy during a primary.
Now is their opportunity to make a correction, or suffer through a much more protracted battle than they need to, or even worse, win the nomination without changing and refining their tactics for the big game.
The campaign’s obsession with playing defense has not allowed for the kind of deep and multi-dimensional insight into the man himself that connects a voter with a candidate.
Romney has a great American success story and family life, yet so far voters have not been given the opportunity to understand how it has shaped him or his beliefs.
By contrast, Rick Santorum mastered this aspect of campaigning in Iowa and the results validated his effort.
5. Can Romney Take Risks?
Romney’s advisers have fully subscribed to the theory of their own inevitability leading them to fear taking any risks that would upset conventional wisdom.
Ironically, one can speculate that Romney’s success in business was a result of a more aggressive strategy that mastered the art of risk and reward, so perhaps he should conduct his campaign accordingly.
The Sunshine State has to be the place where Romney rolls out his soul into the open and starts connecting with voters on a real level.
Much like a New Hampshire loss did for George W. Bush during the 2000 primary, South Carolina can serve as an equally effective canary in the coal mine for Romney -- sounding the warning while there is still ample time to fix the problem.
If Romney is able to do so, he will owe a debt of gratitude to both Newt Gingrich and the voters of the Palmetto state, who forced him to retreat from his defensive playbook.
Only then, will he emerge as a stronger candidate to play offense against a more politically formidable President Obama.
Bottom line: It’s time for the man who spent his career restructuring failing companies, to now work that same magic on his own campaign.
Simply put, Romney cannot defend a presidential nomination that is not his yet; he has to fight to earn it.
Tony Sayegh is a Republican campaign consultant, political analyst and National Correspondent for Talk Radio News Service. He appears regularly on the Fox News Channel, Fox Business Channel and weekly on FoxNews.com Live. You can e-mail Tony at firstname.lastname@example.org.