CHARLESTON, S.C. — Newt Gingrich may have shaken Mitt Romney‘s frontrunner status for the moment, but that hasn’t stopped the former Massachusetts Governor from forging ahead like the presumptive Republican nominee.In the past 48 hours, Romney rolled out high-profile endorsements from Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell this week, adding to a growing list of rising Republican stars who have pledged their support to his campaign. The group – which already included South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — is now starting to look suspiciously like a shortlist for No. 2 on Romney’s apparently inevitable presidential ticket.
Portman and McDonnell — two popular young Establishment-types from electoral-vote-rich swing states — sparked new Veepstakes speculation this week by popping up in the Palmetto State to show their love and join the all-hands-on-deck effort to halt Newtmentum before today’s GOP primary.
Both men have been coy about their interest in the job but their support is yet another indication that Romney already has his mind on the general election — the Obama campaign has publicly set its sights on Virginia, whose changing demographics have moved it out of deep-red territory, and Ohio remains one of the few states that could actually determine the race.
“I think Mitt Romney has a better chance of beating Obama in Ohio,” Portman told Business Insider. “That’s partly based on polling, but it’s also partly based on who will appeal to independent voters in Ohio who are frustrated with what’s going on in Washington and who are looking for an economic message.”
Ohioans, Portman continued, “are going to fall into either the Republican camp or the Democratic camp and then about 40% of the electorate are independent voters who will make the decision — and they shift dramatically…Those folks tend to be fiscally conservative, and tend to be focused on jobs and the economy as their number one issue.”
Portman’s — and by extension, Mitt Romney’s — emphasis on winning over independent voters stands in stark contrast to Gingrich’s angry populist appeal to far-right social conservatives and neocons. If Gingrich wins South Carolina and goes on to put up a fight in Florida, it will set the stage for a showdown between Romney’s conventionally-run Washington-approved campaign, and Gingrich’s unruly, upstart operation that tries to harness grassroots, anti-elitist, anti-Establishment conservativism into something that can win elections.