CHARLESTON, S.C. — With a week left to halt Mitt Romney from sweeping to a third straight victory, his GOP rivals are struggling in South Carolina for a theme, momentum and most crucially, one strong challenger to consolidate conservatives' misgivings about the front-runner.
The dynamics that lifted Romney to wins in Iowa and New Hampshire seem to be working for him here, even though South Carolina is often described as too evangelical and culturally southern for his background.
In some ways, the former Massachusetts governor is lucky, benefitting from a fractured opposition that has divided the anti-Romney vote for months. In other ways he is benefiting from shrewd and well-organized supporters. He uses TV ads to shore up his weaknesses and to batter the rivals he sees as most threatening.
In Iowa, the target was former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who plummeted under the barrage. In South Carolina, it's former Sen. Rick Santorum, a longtime champion of home-schooling, anti-abortion efforts and other social conservative causes.
Santorum nearly won the Iowa caucus, and some consider him the best bet for unifying the anti-Romney vote.
But a private group that supports Romney is pounding Santorum in South Carolina with TV ads and mailings. So is Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian-leaning candidate who helped attack Gingrich in Iowa.
Paul's ads are especially harsh. They vilify Santorum for pushing pork-barrel projects as a Pennsylvania senator, and they portray him as an insincere conservative.
A group of social conservative leaders meeting in Texas voted Saturday to recommend Santorum as the Romney alternative. But a portion of them preferred Gingrich, who denied Santorum a two-thirds majority on their first head-to-head ballot, said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.
Perkins said the group's actions did not constitute an endorsement, adding that some participants will remain Gingrich supporters. He declined to say how he voted.
"Santorum was the preferred candidate by a significant majority," former presidential candidate Gary Bauer told The Associated Press by telephone from Texas. "They were all looking for the best Reagan conservative," he said. "It came down to things like, who do you most trust."
The Texas vote is obviously good news for Santorum. But it's unclear how much impact it will have in South Carolina's primary on Saturday.
The state is known for campaign surprises, and there's still time for twists and turns. Undercurrents of anti-Romney sentiment, perhaps fueled by his Mormonism, could be stronger than they seem.
But on the surface, at least, Romney is well-positioned with a week to go. If he wins South Carolina, only a seismic change in the campaign will keep him from becoming the nominee.
The next primary, on Jan. 31, is in Florida, a sprawling and expensive state where Romney's superior money and organization could essentially put the matter to rest, kicking off the general election against President Barack Obama.
"Romney is in good shape now, but the race is tightening," said LaDonna Ryggs, Spartanburg County GOP chairwoman.
There is little a barrage of ads depicting Romney as a heartless corporate raider is having much effect. He is airing a counter-ad defending his record at Bain Capital, which sometimes created jobs, and sometimes reduced them, when it restructured dozens of companies in the 1980s and '90s.
"That's what his job was, and he did it well," said Carleen Coffey, 51, who defended Romney even as she attended an event for Texas Gov. Rick Perry in Charleston.
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