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.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, campaigns at American Legion Post 15 in Sumter, S.C., Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012.

Ask Fred Kline whom he likes most for president, and he says Ron Paul, the libertarian Republican congressman from Texas. Then ask him whom he voted for in the New Hampshire primary: Mitt Romney.

"I went with electability," says Mr. Kline, chairman of the board of selectmen in Pembroke, N.H.

That, in a nutshell, may be the story of the 2012 Republican primaries: voters who, above all, want to defeat President Obama, and are going with their heads and not their hearts when they enter the voting booth.

Among the Republican contenders, the moderate former governor of Massachusetts is the most organized and best funded. Polls consistently show Mr. Romney as the strongest potential GOP nominee. In part, it is that sentiment – practicality, not love – that has put Romney at the top of polls in conservative, evangelical-heavy South Carolina, scene of the next primary on Jan. 21. 

Election 101: Where the GOP candidates stand on the economy

But on Saturday, at a gathering in Houston, some 150 religious conservative leaders from around the country said “not so fast.” Most voted to back the candidacy of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a devout Catholic known for his conservative social views.

And even before the Santorum endorsement, whose value at this late hour is questionable, some GOP strategists in South Carolina were counseling caution in predicting the outcome next Saturday.

"It's too early to give [Romney] the crown," says J. David Woodard, a political scientist at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C. and a Republican consultant.  "Just because he came in here with some momentum doesn't mean it's over."

After all, Romney came in fourth in South Carolina in 2008 with 15 percent, behind Arizona Sen. John McCain, the eventual GOP nominee, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson.

Of course, Romney has the potential to do what Senator McCain did: take advantage of a divided field and win with a modest plurality. McCain won South Carolina four years ago with only 33 percent of the vote. But the state's Republicans are proud hosts of the first primary in a red state, and some don't rule out the possibility that another candidate could stage a late surge and win.

'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."

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."

Also weighing in Romney's favor is the support of key figures in the state's GOP establishment, namely Gov. Nikki Haley and Treasurer Curtis Loftis. Tea partyers, who backed Governor Haley's rise to power a year ago, are upset that she has gone with Romney. For Romney, Haley provided a key endorsement in an early-voting state (the first Southern primary, no less), enhancing the air of inevitability he is cultivating.

How will Bain controversy play?

Most intriguing, though, is how attacks on Romney's record as a venture capitalist at Bain Capital will play in South Carolina, where unemployment stands near 10 percent, higher than the national average. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry have gone after Romney over Bain, and an outside group backing Mr. Gingrich is spending millions on ads promoting a half-hour documentary that savages Romney over Bain's closing of businesses.

Romney is fighting back with an ad of his own that defends his record, saying he invested in businesses and helped create jobs. The Bain attack has shocked Republicans who argue that it is helping make Obama's argument for him, should he face Romney in November. South Carolina may well be Governor Perry's last stand in the campaign, and his populist attacks on Romney – calling him a "vulture capitalist" – cost him a prominent business supporter in South Carolina. Perry has since backed off.

Gingrich, too, is fighting to keep his campaign aloft, after attack ads by a pro-Romney group brought the former speaker low in Iowa. If nothing else, Gingrich has appeared to be on a revenge mission against Romney.

Congressman Paul, who posted strong numbers in both Iowa and New Hampshire, faces tougher sailing in South Carolina and Florida, where his libertarian message is a tougher sell amid difficult economic times. In short, analysts say, when times are tough, people look to government for jobs and assistance.

If Paul is harmed by the perception that he can't beat Obama, the electability argument could help push Romney over the top in South Carolina – even among evangelicals and tea party sympathizers who might otherwise view him skeptically.

If Romney manages to win South Carolina, even with a McCain-level plurality, the rest of the field will face a strong perception that the Republican race has effectively been decided, despite the fact that barely any convention delegates will have been awarded.

"If Romney goes 3-0, I think it's all over," says Jim Guth, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.

And even if Romney doesn't win South Carolina, he's in strong position to win the next primary, Florida. Romney is uniquely positioned with the money and organization required to win in an expensive state with 10 media markets. Florida Republicans vote on Jan. 31.

Election 101: Where the GOP candidates stand on the economy

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