CHARLESTON, S.C. - If a conservative rebellion is going to stop Mitt Romney from rolling to the nomination, Republicans say it is likely to start here, in this redder-than-red battleground state in the heart of the South.
With Romney holding a wide lead in New Hampshire, which votes Tuesday, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, and Newt Gingrich are all looking to make what could be their final stand here, by appealing to social conservatives, veterans, and Tea Party activists who wield significant influence in the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21.
Their determination suggests this state could emerge as the stiffest test yet of Romney’s ability to win over voters who consider him too moderate.
If Romney triumphs in South Carolina, it would send a powerful signal that the former Massachusetts governor can unite the party’s factions without a brutal ideological battle. If Santorum or another challenger can win here, it could foreshadow a drawn-out and divisive fight for the nomination.
The victor here will be able to claim that history is on his side: South Carolina has voted for the eventual Republican nominee in every election since 1980, when a conservative former California governor named Ronald Reagan vanquished his more moderate challenger, George H.W. Bush.
“South Carolina is where the traditional legs of the party are tested - by social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, and national defense Republicans,’’ said Matt Moore, executive director of the state’s Republican Party.
This year, the contest is shaping up to be especially fierce because each of Romney’s rivals sees an opportunity to derail him in the state.
Gingrich, who for 20 years represented Georgia in the US House, has more than a dozen paid staffers in South Carolina, reflecting just how critical the state is to his campaign.
After being pummeled by ads financed by Romney’s allies in Iowa, he has launched an all-out assault on Romney, calling him a “timid Massachusetts moderate.’’
Perry, who flirted with dropping out of the race after a disappointing fifth-place finish in Iowa, is skipping the New Hampshire primary to stake his fortunes on South Carolina, where he says voters share his values.
Santorum, fresh off his near-win in Iowa, is courting the state’s large bloc of social conservatives and evangelicals. Last year, he made more than two dozen trips to South Carolina, more than any other candidate. Paul has a large military and Tea Party following that could also be important in the primary.
The question, however, is whether conservatives unhappy with Romney will finally rally behind one of those candidates or continue to divide their support.
“As always, we’re going to play an important role,’’ said Chip Felkel, a Republican strategist in Greenville and close observer of South Carolina politics. “In this case, the role might be to confirm a Romney nomination, or it might be to draw a line in the sand. But I don’t see enough agreement among those who want to stop Romney about how to do it. If it doesn’t happen here, I’m not sure how it will happen.’’
Felkel, who is not supporting any candidate, said the conservatives he talks to like Romney’s argument that he is the most electable Republican, even though they may not be happy about the health care law Romney signed in Massachusetts and his past support of abortion rights.
“They’re getting warmer to the concept of winning, as opposed to just being right,’’ he said.
If Santorum or another Romney rival cannot win in South Carolina, some say they will be hard-pressed to compete in the next primary, in Florida on Jan. 31. That contest hinges less on rallies and more on ad campaigns in the state’s expensive media markets. “Once you get beyond South Carolina, the process becomes prohibitive, and money starts to quickly dry up,’’ said Charles Bierbauer, dean of the journalism program at the University of South Carolina.
Yesterday, Romney held an outdoor rally with several hundred voters at Charles Towne Landing Historic Park, a bucolic wedding and event venue ringed by palmettos and live oaks. Romney was joined on stage by Senator John McCain, his once-bitter rival from the 2008 primary and the winner of that year’s South Carolina primary, and Nikki Haley, the governor who was elected in 2010 with significant Tea Party support.
Both McCain and Haley sought to burnish Romney’s conservative bona fides. Calling herself a “strong conservative,’’ Haley said Romney stands with her in supporting the state’s voter ID law, which has been rejected by the Obama administration amid concerns that it could make it harder for minorities to vote.
Mostly, Haley praised Romney as the candidate with the deepest economic experience. South Carolina’s unemployment rate is 9.9 percent, higher than the national rate of 8.6 percent. In the South, only North Carolina and Florida have higher unemployment, at 10 percent each.
In the only direct shot at one of Romney’s rivals, McCain criticized Santorum, accusing him of supporting wasteful spending. “Senator Santorum and I have a strong disagreement, that he believed that earmarks and pork barrel projects were good for America,’’ he said. “Earmark spending is the gateway to corruption.’’
Romney, in a nod to the Tea Party, accused the Obama administration of “crony capitalism’’ for its support of green-energy companies, like Solyndra. That phrase, popularized by Sarah Palin, has gained currency in the Tea Party movement, as a way to describe the close ties between business and government.
Some South Carolina Tea Party leaders have criticized Haley for endorsing Romney, who has long had a strained relationship with the movement. In addition, a recent poll by Winthrop University in Rock Hill found only 35 percent of voters surveyed approve of the job Haley is doing, potentially undercutting the value of her endorsement.
Senator Jim DeMint, who backed Romney in 2008, and Senator Lindsey Graham, who endorsed McCain, have stayed on the sidelines of this year’s race, as has Representative Tim Scott, who has a large Tea Party following. Republicans are watching closely to see if any one of them endorses a candidate.
Despite his efforts, including a high-profile visit last year to the Citadel in Charleston to announce his national-security plan, Romney faces certain unavoidable hurdles in a state that is home to Bob Jones University and other evangelical institutions.
Beltram said voters he talks to often raise concerns about Romney’s Mormonism.
“I hear that every day, people talking about that, as if it’s some new revelation,’’ Beltram said. He said he responds to those voters, as Romney does, by pointing to the former governor’s large, stable family as evidence that the candidate shares their values.
Haley, pointing to her own path-breaking election, rejected the notion that South Carolina voters will not support Romney because of his religion. “This is a state that elected a 38-year-old Indian female,’’ she told reporters. “So, no, I am not worried about that at all.’’