Mitt Romney’s Republican rivals are struggling in South Carolina for a theme, momentum and most crucially, one strong challenger to consolidate conservatives’ misgivings about the front-runner.
They have a week to halt Mitt Romney from sweeping to a third straight party primary victory in the race to decide which Republican will face Barack Obama in November. But the dynamics that lifted the former Massachusetts governor to wins in Iowa and New Hampshire seem to be working for him in South Carolina.
South Carolina is often described as too evangelical and culturally southern for his background, but the former Massachusetts governor has benefited from a fractured opposition that has divided the anti-Romney vote for months. Romney has also benefited from shrewd and well-organized supporters. He uses TV ads to shore up his weaknesses and to batter the rivals he sees as most threatening.
Still, the state is known for campaign surprises, and there’s still time for twists and turns. Undercurrents of anti-Romney sentiment, perhaps fueled by his Mormonism, could be stronger than they seem.
In Iowa, the target was former speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, who plummeted under the barrage. In South Carolina, it’s former Sen. Rick Santorum, a longtime champion of home-schooling, anti-abortion efforts and other social conservative causes.
Santorum nearly won the Iowa caucus, and some consider him the best bet for unifying the anti-Romney vote.
But a private group that supports Romney is pounding Santorum in South Carolina with TV ads and mailings. So is Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian-leaning candidate who helped attack Gingrich in Iowa.
Paul’s ads are especially harsh. They vilify Santorum for pushing pork-barrel projects as a Pennsylvania senator, and they portray him as an insincere conservative.
A group of social conservative leaders meeting in Texas voted Saturday to recommend Santorum as the Romney alternative. But a portion of them preferred Gingrich, who denied Santorum a two-thirds majority on their first head-to-head ballot, said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.
Perkins said the group’s actions did not constitute an endorsement, adding that some participants will remain Gingrich supporters. He declined to say how he voted.
On the surface, at least, Romney is well-positioned with a week to go. If he wins South Carolina, only a seismic change in the campaign will keep him from becoming the nominee.
The next primary, on Jan. 31, is in Florida, a sprawling and expensive state where Romney’s superior money and organization could essentially put the matter to rest, kicking off the general election against President Barack Obama.
“Romney is in good shape now, but the race is tightening,” said LaDonna Ryggs, Spartanburg County Republican Party chairwoman.
There is little evidence that a barrage of ads depicting Romney as a heartless corporate raider is having much effect. He is airing a counter-ad defending his record at Bain Capital, which sometimes created jobs, and sometimes reduced them, when it restructured dozens of companies in the 1980s and ‘90s.
The anti-Romney ad, aired by a group supporting Gingrich, has generated much comment in political and media circles. Many conservative leaders have condemned it, and Gingrich later backpedaled, questioning the accuracy of the anti-Romney documentary film behind it.
For ordinary South Carolina Republicans, however, the ad risks being lost in an avalanche of TV commercials, which many voters say they ignore.
Romney’s campaign events run like clockwork, while his opponents often suffer glitches and modest crowds. Gingrich, in particular, has left people scratching their heads.
He spoke at a homeownership rally Thursday in Columbia that appeared to be dominated by Democratic speakers and attendees. Gingrich got a big introduction at a Republican barbecue Friday in Duncan, but he inexplicably didn’t show up for many minutes. Santorum jumped into the void, working the room and getting valuable one-on-one time with voters.
Then on Saturday, Gingrich’s scheduled telephone conference with voters never took place. The dial-in number was invalid.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry has faded. Once seen as having a good chance to beat Romney in South Carolina, the drawling Texan is drawing small crowds at cafes and restaurants. Saturday morning in Mount Pleasant, about half the people at Page’s Okra Grill didn’t bother to stop eating or talking while Perry spoke in a corner.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is getting even less attention.