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Associated Press
Dorothy Robie, 93, of Hooksett, N.H., center, is greeted by her friend Vicky Gaffney, also of Hooksett, left, while waiting for the start of a campaign event by Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, at Robies Country Store, in Hooksett, N.H., Monday, Oct. 10, 2011.

CHARLESTON, S.C. — The treasurer of this state, Curtis Loftis, describes himself as "tea party 35 years ago." Even in the context of South Carolina politics, he is regarded as a conservative maverick. Yet on this night, Mitt Romney is stopping by his fundraiser at the Mills House Hotel, and Loftis could not be more pleased. Republicans, he says, should have one unifying goal: "to send Barack Obama back to Chicago." Romney, he believes, is the "one candidate who can win."

Loftis endorsed Romney in August. The announcement was mishandled by the campaign in Boston and leaked prematurely. Loftis tells me that perhaps 15 of his main tea party supporters, "including some people in this room," were initially angry at him for backing the establishment candidate. But in recent weeks, he says he has "gotten a lot of emails saying, 'I get it.'"

When Romney arrives, he does little more than look presidential and sound patriotic. But Loftis pronounces himself "100 percent confident that Mitt Romney will be the next president of the United States."

Such confidence is premature. Still, this is the kind of incremental progress among conservatives that could eventually win Romney the nomination. In South Carolina, as elsewhere, he has benefited from the closing of the Republican field and the decline of Rick Perry. Romney's campaign staff, says Loftis, "told me Perry was a three- or four-week phenomenon. They were exactly right."

Though Perry is no longer a phenomenon, he remains a serious candidate in South Carolina. At some point, the debate stage of the campaign — in which Perry has done poorly — will end, and advertising, organization and money will begin to make more of a difference. Perry has funds in the bank and a strong campaign team on the ground. He continues to aggressively reach out to GOP leaders in search of support.

But Perry wants a two-person race in this state, and he hasn't yet gotten it. Activists are taken with Herman Cain, who opened a headquarters in West Columbia on Oct. 7. Newt Gingrich and other candidates draw interest, crowds and comment. The race in South Carolina has a feeling of fluidity. And the longer the anti-Romney vote stays divided, the better it is for Romney.

South Carolina is the most authentically Southern of the early primaries. If Perry doesn't effectively consolidate opposition to Romney here, it is the sign of a campaign with even larger problems.

Romney — both Yankee and Mormon — has idiomatic challenges in South Carolina. But he has handled the state more adeptly than four years ago, when he spent liberally for meager results. His recent speech at The Citadel on defense policy, along with a campaign swing by his wife Ann, communicated a polite interest in the state. But it is more of a slow courtship than a marriage offer. I heard local GOP operatives — both supporters and skeptics — praise Romney's slow, steady approach. "He has let everyone else fall by the wayside," says one neutral official. "He has been quiet for a reason."

Romney does not need to win South Carolina, but supporters see an outside shot at victory. A divided Republican primary might be taken with 30 percent of the vote. State polls have Romney averaging around 20 percent among likely voters, while one recent survey has him at 27 percent. If this pattern holds, Romney could pounce late in the process with heavy attention and advertising, perhaps turning a second place into a narrow win.

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But the whole scenario depends on Republican primary voters remaining scattered among several conservative options. The bad news for Romney is that a majority of his party wants an alternative to his nomination. The good news for Romney is that it hasn't settled on one.

Meanwhile, Romney will need more conservative supporters such as Curtis Loftis who are convinced that defeating Obama is the overriding political priority. South Carolina's homegrown political genius, Lee Atwater, used to say that electability doesn't win primaries. This election could test the theory.

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