Battered but standing, Mitt Romney emerged from Monday's presidential debate still the front-runner. Newt Gingrich was at the top of his game, likely earning him at least the silver in South Carolina. Ron Paul probably pushed Rick Santorum into third and himself into fourth place by equating Osama bin Laden with a Chinese dissident. In the most volatile Republican primary season in history, Thursday night's CNN debate still looms large.
If Mr. Romney survives the kerfuffle he created about the income taxes he pays and wins South Carolina after taking Iowa and New Hampshire, he will have gone 3 and 0. No Republican has done that in an open presidential race. Ever.
Still, that alone won't make him the presumptive nominee. The gaps between the candidates matter. And here the numbers look good for the former Massachusetts governor. The RealClearPolitics average of recent South Carolina polls has Mr. Romney in front by 10.3 points (at 32.3%), followed by Mr. Gingrich who, in turn, leads Messrs. Paul and Santorum by 7.7 points. If this holds up, Mr. Romney would go into the Jan. 31 Florida primary with a hard-to-dislodge lead.
He's already in great shape in Florida. While voter attention has been focused on the first three contests, Team Romney has been prepping the next battlefield. Since Dec. 12, the Romney Super PAC and campaign have run an astonishing $3 million of unanswered television ads in the Sunshine State.
Florida is where Mr. Romney should do more to prepare for a clash with President Obama by rebutting—in a direct, powerful and unapologetic way—the attacks launched by Winning Our Future, the Gingrich Super PAC. That shouldn't be hard. Its 28-minute film, "King of Bain," is stuffed with hyperbole, half-truths and flat-out lies. Its anticapitalist message has even won praise from the left-wing propagandist Michael Moore.
Mr. Romney, if he wins the nomination, was always going to face withering criticism from the Obama campaign based on his leadership of Bain Capital. Dealing with it now means telling the full Bain story, including putting a human face on his business background.
For example, the film claims that Mr. Romney closed a Florida industrial washing-machine manufacturing plant and features powerful appearances by workers "laid off by Bain." It turns out they actually got promotions and raises, not pink slips, from Bain.
The company was sold six years after Mr. Romney left Bain to take the helm of the Salt Lake Winter Olympics. And while the new owners closed the Florida facility a year later, the jobs were moved to Wisconsin, according to the Washington Post.
"King of Bain" also asserts that Mr. Romney bought KB Toys and saddled it with "millions of debt." But Bain bought KB a year after Mr. Romney's departure—and it failed nine years later, primarily because of competition from big box stores, according to an Associated Press analysis.
There's more. DDi is a California tech company in which Bain invested $46 million in 1997. "King of Bain" alleges that Romney's firm "dumped" all its stock after reaping $103 million in profits and fees and before the company declared bankruptcy, suggesting that too much debt was the cause. However, it was the aftermath of the 2000 dot-com bust that led the firm to enter bankruptcy in 2003—and Mr. Romney left Bain in 1999. DDi has since emerged from Chapter 11 and is thriving today.
Then there's another target of the film: layoffs at an Indiana paper products firm, SCM Office Supplies, that was acquired in 1994 by AmPad, a Bain company. Bain initially made a lot of money from investing in both companies before AmPad was forced into bankruptcy in 1999. This was not because of unsustainable debt as alleged in the film. Instead, as the Washington Post points out, it was "ironically because of price pressure from companies such as Staples, which was started with help from Bain." And contrary to what the film says, the closure of two former SCM plants in Indiana cost 385 jobs, not "tens of thousands" of jobs. AmPad still exists as a division of another firm.
But even AmPad represents a Romney opportunity. Bain invested in struggling or stagnant companies needing both money and management assistance. This was a high risk/high reward strategy. Without entrepreneurs like Bain willing to pony up with cash and expertise, many of these companies would still be struggling, stagnant or dead with all jobs lost.
The temptation for Team Romney will be to avoid this fight now and wait for Mr. Obama to raise it. But Florida is the place, and early February the time, to set the record straight.
Doing so will not only deliver a body blow to Mr. Romney's most aggressive GOP competitor; but it will strengthen him for the coming battle. However nasty the GOP primary has become, it is a stroll in the park compared to what lies ahead.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, January 18, 2012.