Nastiness ahead in South Carolina; Mitt Romney in strong position

By Thomas Beaumont

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Jan. 8 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, campaign with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, center, and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., at Pinkerton Academy in Derry, N.H., Saturday, Jan. 7, 2012.

Charles Dharapak, Associated Press

GREENVILLE, S.C. — The same forces that aligned for Republican Mitt Romney ahead of his narrow victory in Iowa are working in his favor ahead of South Carolina's pivotal presidential primary. But a lot can happen before the no-holds-barred primary in a state that for decades has picked the eventual Republican nominee.

A splintered conservative base is dividing its support among several of Romney's rivals going into the Jan. 21 contest. The former venture capitalist's business savvy seems to be resonating with voters in a state with almost 10 percent unemployment, according to recent public polls, internal campaign polling and interviews with South Carolina GOP operatives.

So, too, is his argument that he's best positioned to beat President Barack Obama.

A victory Tuesday in New Hampshire would mean that Romney heads into the first Southern contest with momentum from back-to-back successes in the Midwest and Northeast. But the race is certain to get nasty, quickly, in a state known for brass-knuckled politics.

"Everyone is going to throw everything they've got at him," said Romney's senior South Carolina adviser, Warren Tompkins. "Because South Carolina is Armageddon for the rest of them."

South Carolina may offer the last chance for a single conservative challenger to Romney to emerge. Also, independent groups, or super political action committees, that are aligned with his rivals and can raise unlimited money probably will be active. The goal is to derail Romney before the make-of-break Florida primary Jan. 31.

Rick Santorum, who surged late in Iowa and nearly toppled Romney, has said he doesn't expect to win New Hampshire, where the former Massachusetts governor holds a strong lead in polls. Santorum has shifted his focus to South Carolina as he tries to become the favored candidate of social conservatives, a potent bloc.

Santorum scheduled a quick visit to upstate South Carolina on Sunday to pick up the endorsement of former Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer. Both Santorum and an outside group supporting him are pumping money into the state for TV ads starting Monday after aides said the former Pennsylvania senator pulled in $2 million in the two days after the Iowa caucuses this past Tuesday.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry are looking to revive their weakened candidacies in a state full of evangelical Republicans whose support Santorum also is seeking.

Gingrich has a robust campaign organization in South Carolina. Perry has advertised aggressively in the state for weeks.

Gingrich has about a dozen paid workers, but polls show he's fading. He could be helped in the coming days by a $5 million contribution from a Las Vegas billionaire, Sheldon Adelson, to a pro-Gingrich super PAC. Both Gingrich and the outside group have made it known they plan to continue attacking Romney.

Gingrich began airing a spot Sunday that calls Romney's economic plan "timid" and says parts of it are "virtually identical to Obama's failed policy."

Perry shifted most of his Iowa staff to South Carolina. Campaign ads promote his Christian faith and Air Force background. He reconsidered his bid after a fifth-place Iowa finish but decided to head south, a decision that could help Romney by keeping social conservatives from rallying behind a single candidate.

That's how Arizona Sen. John McCain eked out victory in the state over former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee four years ago on his way to the nomination.

"Romney is heading down the same route that 2008 primary victor John McCain was headed with Huckabee," said Lee Bright, who was Michele Bachmann's South Carolina campaign chairman until the Minnesota congresswoman left the race Wednesday. "It's going to be about the same dynamic."

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