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."
Texas Rep. Ron Paul is a potentially complicating factor. He attracts votes from fiscal conservatives whose support Romney probably will need to compensate for social conservatives leery of his Mormon faith or changed positions on some social issues. They doomed his bid in South Carolina four years ago, when he poured millions into the state only to abandon it shortly before the primary. He came in fourth with 15 percent of the vote.
A CNN poll of South Carolina primary voters published Friday showed Romney well ahead, with Santorum a distant second but rising.
As the New Hampshire votes are counted, South Carolinians can expect to hear political attacks on TV and over the telephone. Church-goers can expect to see anonymous leaflets on their windshields. Whisper campaigns aren't out of the question; McCain faced one in 2000 that alleged he had fathered an African-American child out of wedlock.
Romney's advisers are bracing for attacks on his Mormon faith, citing a Texas minister who supports Perry and has called Romney's religion a cult.
"Things tend to get nasty down here in South Carolina," said Wes Donehue, who had been a top state adviser to Bachmann. "I don't know if Santorum has the money or the structure to fight those battles right now."
Santorum only began facing criticism in the closing days of the Iowa campaign, but the Romney campaign has stepped up attacks about Santorum's spending votes in Congress. Organizers of the pro-Romney super PAC are weighing whether to go after Santorum in South Carolina.
Santorum drew 400 people to a sports bar in Greenville Sunday and planned to headline a county party fundraiser in the conservative upstate hub on a quick jaunt to the state, while planning to return to New Hampshire Monday.
Santorum's organization lags behind Gingrich's and Perry's. But it was about to get a boost, Santorum said, as his wife, Karen, and seven children were relocating there Sunday through the primary.
The quick trip signaled Santorum's hope to emerge as the choice of influential Christian conservatives, as did his words.
"Look, we need to do something about jobs and debt. Everyone knows there's bigger problems that are at the foundation of our country. I'm the only candidate talking about all the issues," Santorum said.
Romney has a staff of three in South Carolina, although that will jump after New Hampshire. But Romney also has the coveted endorsement, Gov. Nikki Haley. She and McCain accompanied Romney to coastal communities last week in a show of force.
As he did in the closing days of the Iowa campaign, Romney is keeping his focus in South Carolina on Obama, not his GOP rivals.
"We wondered what would happen if we elected a president who had no experience. Now we know. And it's not a pretty picture," Romney said during an appearance in Conway with Haley and McCain.
One Romney ad seizes on contempt for a federal labor board's ruling to block construction of a Boeing plant over a union dispute, feeding his pro-jobs narrative and playing into anti-federal sentiment.
He may benefit from South Carolina's political diversity.
Social conservatives dominate in the upstate region around Greenville and Spartanburg, while fiscal conservatives and more social moderates rule along the coast. The state has a heavy military influence, too.
The CNN poll showed Romney leading in all regions, but especially in the coast, where big turnout for him could offset heavy turnout among conservatives in the northwest. The survey also showed Romney leading in all segments of the party, including born-again Christians and tea party supporters.
"To win South Carolina, you've got to put together a coalition of voters that's diverse," said Adam Temple, a Charleston Republican strategist and top aide on McCain's 2008 team. "And it sure looks like Romney's doing that."
Associated Press writer Jim Davenport contributed to this report.