David Goldman, Associated Press
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Mitt Romney swept into South Carolina on Wednesday in pursuit of a confirming victory in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, buoyed by a second straight electoral triumph, bulging campaign coffers and warm words from the state's pre-eminent practitioner of tea party politics.
"I don't want to be overconfident," said the Republican front-runner. But increasingly, he was talking about his plans for challenging President Barack Obama in the fall, not his primary foes of the moment.
Running out of time, his GOP rivals showed no sign of surrender.
Newt Gingrich welcomed Romney into the first Southern primary state with a fresh attack on his business career and a new television ad painting him as a flip-flopper on abortion. Said former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, "South Carolina is going to be different. It is wide open for anyone."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry drawled his way through a busy campaign day, displaying a Southern attribute that Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, could not hope to match.
But on the morning after a solid win in New Hampshire, Romney got help from two unlikely sources.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who ran second in New Hampshire, chastised Gingrich and Perry for criticizing the front-runner's experience as a venture capitalist whose firm acquired, slimmed down and then spun off existing companies, often earning large profits in the process.
"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," he said, without mentioning anyone by name.
South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint echoed Paul's remarks, and declared, "I think Romney's going to win here. ... He's hitting a lot of hot buttons for me about balancing the budget, and frankly I'm a little concerned about the few Republicans who have criticized some of what I consider to be free market principles here."
DeMint has been lobbied heavily by several of the presidential contenders eager for his endorsement and has so far chosen to remain neutral. Still, the remarks by a man who has sometimes taken the tea party's side in clashes with the Republican establishment sent a clear signal that Romney was to be viewed as worthy of support.
The day's events marked the unofficial start of a 10-day campaign that includes a pair of televised debates, millions of dollars in television ads and the first competition of the year in a state with high unemployment, a major military presence and a large population of evangelicals.
Joblessness in South Carolina, at 9.9 percent, is almost as high as in Iowa (5.7 percent) and New Hampshire (5.2 percent) combined. By some estimates, as much as 60 percent of the primary electorate here is comprised of evangelicals.
Culturally and historically, the state has relatively little in common with either Iowa or New Hampshire.
Southwesterner Perry tried to emphasize a regional affinity.
"There wouldn't be a Texas without South Carolina," Perry said, referring to the Southern fighters who helped Texas gain independence from Mexico in the 1830s. As the other contenders arrived, his campaign began airing a television commercial in which decorated military veterans vouched for his commitment to the armed forces.
Given the political state of play, a victory by Romney could signal a quick end to what for months looked like it might be a long war of attrition for the nomination.
Gingrich conceded as much. "There's no more time for talking about stopping Mitt Romney," he wrote in a "Dear Conservative" fundraising appeal. "We're going to do it next week in South Carolina or he's almost certain to be the Republican nominee."
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