Republican front-runner Mitt Romney has opened a 10-day blitz in conservative South Carolina, where a primary victory would make him nearly unstoppable in his battle for the nomination as the party's challenger to President Barack Obama in November.
Romney is trying to woo South Carolinians who cast ballots on Jan. 21 after the narrowest of victories in Iowa and a solid win in New Hampshire, the first two states where voters chose a favorite candidate. The 2012 campaign will likely mark one of the most highly charged and deeply partisan elections in recent history.
Romney is the favorite of the Republican political establishment as the candidate most likely to defeat Obama. The former Massachusetts governor is flush with cash — reporting that he raised $24 million during the last three months of 2011.
"I don't want to be overconfident," Romney said Wednesday. But increasingly, he was talking about his plans for challenging Obama in November, not his primary foes of the moment.
Obama is vulnerable as he turns up his campaigning for a second term. The wobbly U.S. economy, a ravaged housing market and stubbornly high unemployment have proven a major drag on his support. The president is weighed down by an extremely slow recovery from the 2007-2009 Great Recession. Voters blame that downturn on former President George W. Bush but are judging Obama according to his mixed record in turning things around.
Despite those difficulties, Obama raked in more than $68 million combined for his re-election campaign and the Democratic Party during the final three months of 2011. While that easily outstrips Romney's haul, the former Massachusetts governor is still battling five other Republicans for the nomination. That dilutes support among the large field. Should he win the nomination the difference in fundraising will narrow dramatically.
Still Romney faces strong opposition among Republicans who see him as too moderate as the representative of a party that has become more conservative over recent years. Nevertheless, Romney's opponents have been unable to coalesce behind a single rival in the six-man race.
Republicans are uncertain about whether Romney, the former governor of the northern, liberal state of Massachusetts, is sufficiently conservative. It's not clear if South Carolina's core evangelicals will rally behindRomney, who is a Mormon.
South Carolina is also known for tough political fights and this year isn't likely to be an exception. The candidates with presumably the best prospects in the conservative southern state — Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry — all fared poorly in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who finished second in New Hampshire with his flinty libertarian prescriptions for fixing America's economic troubles, will face a stiff challenge in South Carolina. He calls for the virtual withdrawal of U.S. military forces from overseas and significant cuts in defense spending. South Carolina is heavily populated by military families and dependent on government defense dollars. The state still has a 9.9 percent unemployment rate, more than a percentage point higher than the national average.
Wednesday's events in South Carolina marked the unofficial start of a campaign that includes a pair of televised debates, millions of dollars in television ads and the first competition of the year in a southern state.
As Republicans stormed into the state, Obama made a quick visit to his Chicago headquarters Wednesday, preparing for his re-election fight and stocking up on campaign cash as he thanked hometown staffers.
Obama told campaign donors that America was still dealing with a "difficult economy and that's why this is going to be a close race. I've got to tell you, if we weren't coming out of this extraordinary recession, I think the American people would make their decision very quickly."
"But we've gone through three tough years. The other side has been able to sit on the sidelines and say 'no' to everything, not cooperate and then simply try to point the finger and say, somehow this should have been fixed," the president said.
"You can't back down — not now. We won't give up — not now," Obama said. "We've got to send a message we are going to keep pushing and fighting for the change that we believe in."