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Next stop South Carolina: Can Romney's train keep chugging ahead?

If the trend so far in the primaries has been for Republican voters to vote for Mitt Romney with their heads and not with their hearts, some in conservative South Carolina are saying: 'Not so fast.' Most evangelical leaders meeting in Texas Saturday voted to back Rick Santorum.

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'We like conservatives'

"Romney's a moderate, and we like conservatives," says Mr. Woodard, who is neutral in the primary. "In 2008, McCain remade himself into a more conservative and acceptable person. Now Romney's getting pounded on the radio over his abortion stand. I'm not sure he has the credentials to win conservatives."

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And, he adds, there’s a lesson in the nomination of McCain: “We voted for a moderate in ’08 and lost [in the general election].”

In some ways, Romney, too, has tried to reinvent himself. Once a supporter of abortion rights and gay rights, he now calls himself pro-life and a defender of traditional marriage. But he's also the author of Massachusetts health-care reform, the model for Mr. Obama's reform and a program Romney continues to defend. Romney leaves many Republicans unsure of his convictions.

And as a Mormon, Romney still encounters skepticism among a Republican electorate that is 60 percent evangelical and hews to a belief that he's not really a Christian.

Mr. Santorum’s near-victory in Iowa has made him competitive in South Carolina, but time is short. He spent so much time focused on Iowa that he's now scrambling to catch up.

Only on Jan. 11, 10 days before the South Carolina primary, did Santorum announce the opening of five new campaign offices around the state to supplement his headquarters in Mt. Pleasant. Still, he has managed to visit the state 26 times and is organized in 42 of 46 counties.

Santorum's weak performance in New Hampshire – fifth place, 9.4 percent – suggests that he might have been better off skipping the Granite State and heading straight to South Carolina after Iowa. But that's water under the bridge. He is also on the defensive over his 16-year record in the House and Senate, including ads pounding on his votes for spending on home-state projects, or "earmarks."

Santorum focuses on entitlements

Santorum has gone after McCain – who backs Romney – saying that the Arizona senator is putting too much emphasis on earmarks, and that the real culprit on the US deficit is entitlements. Santorum defends bringing taxpayer money to Pennsylvania, saying it went to needed projects, but he also says he supported Congress's vote to end earmarks.

Still, Santorum's record on spending is a liability among tea party groups, of which there are many in South Carolina. And while Santorum stakes a claim as a favorite among evangelicals, he could have a harder time with the small-government, low-tax activists who came to the fore three years ago.

It is the overlay of tea party activists in South Carolina, who have not coalesced around any one presidential candidate, that could allow Romney to rise to the top in a crowded field.

"There are 124 groups around the state that identify as quote, unquote tea party," says Chip Felkel, a Republican consultant based in Greenville, S.C., who has not backed a candidate. "They're a force, but a force with no real direction. They're all split up amongst the folks that aren't Mitt Romney."

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