COLUMBIA, S.C. — Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney braced for a brutal 10-day onslaught in South Carolina as he looks to turn the first-in-the-South primary into the last stand for his Republican rivals.
Coming off twin victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, the former Massachusetts governor was already trying Wednesday to lower expectations that he'll win in a state defined by notoriously nasty politics, conservative Christians and an active tea party — elements his rivals hope they can use to slow what's beginning to look like a sprint to the nomination.
"Clearly I face more of an uphill battle in South Carolina than I have here in New Hampshire," Romney said as he boarded his campaign plane in Bedford, Mass., en route to Columbia. He lost in South Carolina in 2008.
"Last time I came in fourth," he said, "so, you know, our team recognizes this is going to be a challenge."
Among those challenges: fighting against attacks on his time at Bain Capital, keeping his campaign on message after verbal missteps about pink slips and liking to fire people, and staying vigilant for any whisper campaign about his Mormon religion.
Rivals Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum were scrambling to break through and become a viable conservative alternative to Romney. The early contests scrambled the field, with Santorum nearly winning in Iowa but falling back in New Hampshire. Gingrich led polls in December but faded in the face of withering attacks from Romney's allies on the airwaves in Iowa.
"We have everybody now gunning with full-time desperation. For most all of them, there is no life after South Carolina," said Warren Tompkins, Romney's strategist in the state. "Desperate people do desperate things."
Most important, Romney aides say, is trying to ensure no single conservative opponent emerges so he can move into Florida from a position of strength. Romney is the only candidate with a full operation there, with calls, mail and TV ads — and his top advisers now see it as the place where Romney can prove he's the only candidate able to go the distance.
Florida's sizable Hispanic population means it's also an opportunity for Romney to look ahead to the general election. He's now on the air with a Spanish-language ad featuring his son Craig, who speaks Spanish. And on the trail, Romney is dropping hints that he'll focus his general election efforts on Latino voters.
"I need to get 50.1 percent of Americans behind me," Romney said during a speech in Nashua, N.H. If he can win over Latino Americans, "I can do well pretty broadly."
First, he'll have to face down South Carolina — and the millions in super PAC advertising that will be directed at him. Gingrich allies plan to spend millions on ads hitting Romney's record at Bain.
Romney advisers say they'll start to point out where profits from venture capital firms often go: charitable foundations, university endowments and pension and retirement funds.
More helpful may be a growing conservative backlash against what many on the right say is an anti-capitalist attitude. South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, who backed Romney in 2008 but isn't endorsing any candidate this time, defended Romney's time at Bain during a radio interview. Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh also stood up for him.
Romney learned anew in New Hampshire how his rivals will use his own words against him. His reference to worrying about receiving a pink slip as a freshly minted Harvard MBA and his comments about liking to fire people gave his opponents an opening to claim he's out of touch with ordinary Americans and a cold-hearted businessman.
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South Carolina's less visible politics are often darker than even the brutal attack ads that are running out in the open. Tompkins refused to address just what the campaign would do in the face of surreptitious attacks on Romney's Mormon faith. His team has already sent out mailers emphasizing that he's been steady in his faith. It's a contrast with Gingrich, who recently converted to Catholicism.
"We just have to be prepared for anything and everything and be disciplined with the message and how to cut through the misinformation," Tompkins said.
Asked if he was prepared for a whisper campaign about his Mormon religion or other aspects of his background, Romney said: "Politics ain't bean bags and I know it's going to get tough and no one's going to be happy if things are said that are untrue. But I know that is sometimes part of the underbelly of politics."