Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
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COLUMBIA, S.C. — Mitt Romney says he's ready for an uphill climb in South Carolina after coasting through New Hampshire. As the Republican presidential contest heads south Wednesday, his rivals are sharpening their attacks and trying to rev up tea partyers and religious conservatives still nervous about the front-runner.
Still, Romney projects a self-assurance that must be wearing on his five opponents. He dismisses much of their criticism as acts of desperation. And he said that while several campaigns can afford to keep the nomination fight going, "I expect them to fall by the wayside eventually for lack of voters."
Despite the rougher tone and tougher ideological terrain ahead, the former Massachusetts governor is hoping to force his opponents from the race by achieving a four-state streak with victories in South Carolina on Jan. 21 and Florida 10 days later.
He posted a double-digit win Tuesday night in New Hampshire after a squeaker the week before in Iowa — making him the first non-incumbent Republican in a generation to pull off the back-to-back feat.
"Tonight we celebrate," Romney told a raucous victory party in Manchester, N.H. "Tomorrow we go back to work."
The way ahead passes through minefields that held him to fourth place in the South Carolina primary when he ran four years ago: Republicans skeptical of his Mormon faith and reversals on some social issues.
All the candidates planned to campaign in the state Wednesday. Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, ex-Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman were flying in from New Hampshire. They'll join Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who didn't invest much time in New Hampshire while putting his post-Iowa focus on South Carolina.
Several of Romney's rivals have made clear they will seek to undercut the chief rationale of his candidacy: that his experience in private business makes him the strongest Republican to take on President Barack Obama on the economy in the fall. Perry, for one, is accusing Romney of "vulture capitalism" that led to job losses in economically distressed South Carolina.
Obama's team, treating Romney as their likely general election opponent, has joined in the effort to darken the picture of his days in private enterprise. Vice President Joe Biden said Tuesday night that Romney had worried more about investors doing well than he did about the employees of companies bought by his venture capital firm.
On Wednesday, Romney offered a practical-minded defense of layoffs that might not reassure voters worried about holding onto their jobs.
"Every time we had a reduction in employment it was designed to try and make the business more successful and, ultimately, to grow it," Romney told ABC's "Good Morning America."
He got some support from an unusual source — his rival Paul, who finished second in New Hampshire. The libertarian-leaning congressman said other Republican candidates were slamming Romney for market-oriented restructuring of corporations.
"I just wonder whether they're totally ignorant of economics or whether they're willing to demagogue just with the hopes of getting a vote or two," Paul told MSNBC on Wednesday.
Romney said his opponents sound like Obama and other Democrats attacking the free enterprise system and encouraging jealousy toward the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans. "It's a very envy-oriented attack," he told NBC's "Today" show.
Romney contends the criticism actually works to his benefit by highlighting the business acumen that will help him set the nation's economy right and shrink the federal government.
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