For Mitt Romney, it's likely to feel a lot hotter in South Carolina

Coming off a decisive win Tuesday in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney leads the pack in South Carolina, polls show. But the state is not a natural fit for him, and some GOP rivals are on the warpath.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, celebrates his New Hampshire primary election win in Manchester, N.H., Tuesday.

After a solid victory in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney heads to the less comfortable clime of South Carolina.

There, the center-right former governor of Massachusetts faces a Republican electorate that is more tilted toward conservatives and born-again Christians than in the Granite State. The tea party movement is more organized. And culturally, the northern Mr. Romney is a less-natural fit than he was in New Hampshire, where he owns a home and is neighbor to the state he once governed.

But as the Republican presidential field descends on South Carolina for the first Southern primary, on Jan. 21, Romney remains in position to rise above a divided field of opponents and further solidify his status as the front-runner for the GOP nomination. Five other major candidates remain in the race, and as long as voters fail to coalesce around any one of them, there is little hope of stopping Romney.

[ Video is no longer available. ]

Romney won New Hampshire with 39 percent of the vote, followed by Rep. Ron Paul (23 percent), former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (17 percent), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (9.4 percent), and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (9.3 percent).

Nationally, Romney now enjoys broad acceptability among Republicans of all hues. According to a Gallup poll released Jan. 10, Romney is the only candidate whom a majority of conservative and moderate/liberal Republicans view as “acceptable” for the nomination, with 59 percent of each group agreeing with that assessment.

“Conservative Republicans are more likely to say Romney would be an acceptable nominee than either Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum,” writes Gallup editor in chief Frank Newport.

Indeed, in conservative South Carolina, recent polls show Romney averaging an 11-point lead over his nearest competitor, Mr. Santorum. The Pennsylvanian nearly beat Romney in Iowa, but fell to fifth place in New Hampshire. Santorum’s religious conservative views give him a natural entree into South Carolina, so the question is whether he can regain momentum – and keep raising major money. In the week since Iowa, he brought in $3 million – after going for nine months on just $2 million, he says. Wednesday morning, his campaign announced the opening of five new offices in South Carolina.

Mr. Gingrich, who finished fourth in New Hampshire, could also be a player in South Carolina – but more as a spoiler than a top-tier contender. A pro-Gingrich outside group has pledged to spend $3.4 million in South Carolina promoting a documentary that attacks Romney’s career as a venture capitalist at Bain Capital, which entailed closing troubled businesses and laying off workers.

On Tuesday, prominent conservatives – including radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh – accused Gingrich of bashing the free-enterprise system. “He sounds like Elizabeth Warren!” said Mr. Limbaugh, referring to the liberal Harvard Law professor running for Senate in Massachusetts.

Still, the economic woes of South Carolina, where unemployment is higher than in Iowa and New Hampshire, could play a role in the primary. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who skipped New Hampshire to focus on South Carolina, has also gone after Romney over South Carolina businesses that closed at the hands of Bain. Romney’s campaign pitch centers on his background in the private sector and record of job creation, and the sudden negativity from fellow Republican puts him on the defensive.

But Romney remains one click ahead of his GOP competitors. Wednesday morning, he released a Spanish-language ad in Florida, whose Jan. 31 primary is next on the schedule after South Carolina. Florida’s large Latino vote – featuring conservative Cuban-Americans and more liberal Puerto Ricans, Mexican-Americans, and others – will be critical both in the Jan. 31 primary and in the general election. The ad features three prominent south Florida Cuban-Americans – GOP Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, and former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart. It is narrated by one of Romney’s sons, Craig, who served as a Mormon missionary in Chile

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.