CONCORD, N.H. — Mitt Romney faces a treacherous path to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, even after his historic, back-to-back victories in Iowa and New Hampshire.
The race now heads to Dixie, where Southerners view the Iowa and New Hampshire contests as little more than entertaining warm-ups for the real trial yet to come.
Romney’s opponents are promising vigorous attempts to derail him in South Carolina and Florida, states loaded with Tea Party and religious conservatives who are hostile to his campaign. Newt Gingrich, who lost his lead in South Carolina polls last month, has signaled he will try to gain it back from Romney with a barrage of negative advertising. Romney’s forces are readying an expensive airwaves campaign of their own.
“I think the test is going to come in South Carolina and Florida,’’ said Joe Dugan, a Tea Party activist and Gingrich supporter from Myrtle Beach, S.C. “That’s where you’re going to see a much more representative example of the way the country feels.’’
Even if Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, does well enough in South Carolina on Jan. 21 and Florida on Jan. 31 to retain front-runner status, new party rules that distribute delegates in proportion to the vote in later states may prolong the campaign. Some Republicans fear this will weaken the ultimate nominee. Ron Paul has signaled that he intends to compete for a share of convention delegates in small caucus states over the next couple of months.
South Carolina polls have placed Romney at the head of the pack, in front of Rick Santorum and Gingrich, by an average of 10 points. The last time he faced voters in South Carolina, in the 2008 presidential nominating contest, Romney placed fourth, behind John McCain, who won, and Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson, who came in second and third.
Romney must do a lot better this time to prove to conservatives around the country that he can perform well in Southern Bible Belt states, not just in the Midwest and moderate New England.
Highlighting the importance of South Carolina as the first major conservative test: No Republican candidate has won the party nomination since 1980 without winning the South Carolina primary.
Winning there would keep Romney on a strong trajectory heading to the Florida primary; placing second in a state where 70 percent of poll respondents are weekly churchgoers, many of them evangelical Christians, would also be respectable for the first Mormon in US history challenging strongly for the White House. But, respectable or not, a second-place finish for Romney would mean that the winner becomes a viable alternative to him. That could prolong the race and cause him problems down the road.
Romney supporters say South Carolinians will take a look at Romney’s Iowa and New Hampshire victories and get on board. Romney is the first nonincumbent Republican to ever win both Iowa and New Hampshire.
“They look at a winner. They want to win,’’ said Representative Phyllis Henderson, a Greenville Republican who has endorsed Romney. “People who have not made up their minds are going to be making a decision based on who they feel is best to beat Barack Obama - and who wins the first primaries.’’
Much depends on how Romney withstands the upcoming onslaught of negative attacks by his opponents. J. David Woodard, a Clemson University professor and political consultant who has advised numerous Republicans in the state, including George W. Bush in 2000, said the state’s reputation for sharp-elbowed campaigns is well deserved. Romney should be prepared to absorb some blows.
“It can be a real rock in the road,’’ he said. “Every time, it’s rough. Negative campaigning is the real coin of the realm.’’
Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, would be the strongest challenger to take Romney deeper into the primary, Woodard added, but first he must break free of the five-way scrum being waged to be the anti-Mitt candidate.
Santorum, a Catholic whose political career has hinged on Christian values and religious issues, may perform well among religious voters in the upstate end of South Carolina, while Romney is expected to fare better in the coastal, more moderate region.
Santorum and some other candidates will be making their pitches starting this weekend at events sponsored by the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition and the South Carolina Faith and Freedom Coalition.
Romney has not yet said whether he will attend the Tea Party convention. He is confirmed as a speaker at the Faith and Freedom meeting, according to the event website.
Romney benefits from having multiple candidates in the race because they divide the vote. A first-place South Carolina finish by anyone other than Romney could create intense competition for Florida.
The state has large numbers of evangelical voters and, according to activists’ lore, was the birthplace of the Tea Party movement in 2009.
Because Florida is so large, however, it requires deep pockets, a big organization, and an extensive TV advertising presence in multiple cities. Advantage: Romney. None of the other candidates can match him in money or organization.
“Governor Romney has the airwaves and the mailboxes already. I’d rather be our campaign than anyone else at this point, by a long shot,’’ said Susie Wiles, a Republican campaign consultant who was working for Jon Huntsman earlier in the campaign and is now backing Romney.
A Quinnipiac University poll of Florida voters last week found Romney on top with 36 percent, Gingrich in second with 24 percent, and Santorum with 16 percent. Romney had the best favorability rating in the poll: 73 percent.
As in other primary states, sentiment in Florida is shifting and unpredictable. The Quinnipiac survey found that more than half of those polled said they might change their mind.
Dr. Dave Weldon, a former congressman who founded the Space Coast Family Forum, a Christian values organization, is a Romney supporter. Some religious voters he knows have reservations about Romney’s bona fides and are supporting Santorum.
“Rick Santorum is a friend of mine, and he’d probably be a great president,’’ Weldon said. “But he has emerged late as a strong candidate. Trying to put together a war chest and organization on short notice like this is a real challenge.’’
Romney, he said, “is most likely to get the nomination. His big challenge moving ahead is going to be consolidating everyone around him.’’
Christopher Rowland can be reached at email@example.com.