By Jim Morrill and Tim Funk, McClatchy Newspapers –
CHARLESTON, S.C. — By this time four years ago, Mitt Romney had given up on South Carolina, pulling his ads and ceding the state two weeks before the Republican primary.
It was the same Mitt Romney who bolted onto a stage outside Charleston last week, wearing jeans and a smile as he basked in a friendly crowd and brighter prospects. Same guy. Different year.
“Last time, he was the Yankee governor and the Mormon,” said state Rep. Nathan Ballentine, a Wells Fargo banker from Columbia. “Now he’s the business professional who can lead the country.”
The former Massachusetts governor hopes to win the Jan. 21 primary in a state that prides itself on anointing every GOP nominee since 1980.
The contest comes 11 days after Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, where Romney is heavily favored. He’s sending prominent surrogates and relocating staffers to the Palmetto State. This week, advisers say, Romney will get more high-profile endorsements.
“It’s going to come down, … as it always does, to South Carolina,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told Romney supporters Friday in Myrtle Beach. “If Mitt Romney wins here, he will be the next president of the United States.”
Polls released after he won last week’s Iowa caucuses showed Romney leading in South Carolina for the first time in a year, with former Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich his nearest rivals.
The stars also seemed aligned for Romney in 2008.
He’d hit the ground before any of his rivals and built a wide network. He had U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina in his camp, along with one of the state’s top consultants. He blitzed the airwaves.
But he was a tough sell. In a conservative state where evangelicals make up 60 percent of the GOP electorate, he was a Massachusetts moderate with a questionable record. He finished a disappointing fourth.
“It was like selling ribeye steaks to vegetarians; they just weren’t having it,” said Wesley Donehue, a Romney consultant in 2008 who until last week served as a senior adviser to Michele Bachmann. “People just didn’t trust him. … Since then, he’s been able to jump that trust hurdle, and people are starting to listen.”
This year, Romney got a late start in South Carolina, just as he had in Iowa. Two high-profile consultants didn’t even come on board until December.
But he won key supporters, including Gov. Nikki Haley and state Treasurer Curtis Loftis, a tea party favorite.
“When you look at the field,” said Ballentine, “he’s the grown-up who can go up to Washington and manage that sandbox.”
At Charles Towne Landing, Haley told a crowd that Romney would promote South Carolina.-style conservatism in Washington on such issues as voter ID laws, “mandatory” health care and illegal immigration.
“I asked him, ‘Gov. Romney, can you believe that we passed an illegal immigration bill in this state and the federal government is saying we can’t do it?’” Haley said, standing alongside the candidate. “And he said, ‘Every state that passes a law should be able to enforce those laws in their state.’ That’s what we need in a president!”
While a pro-Romney super PAC has attacked Gingrich and other rivals, Romney has sought to stay above the fray, targeting President Barack Obama instead. He casts the president as an advocate of big government and spending, arguments that play well in a conservative state.
But it is the perception of electability that could be Romney’s trump card.
“He’s the only one who can beat Obama, and I sure want to get (Obama) out,” veteran Wade Arnett said at Thursday’s rally.
Not everybody is sold on Romney’s electability.
“I’ve seen way too many races lost because the person who was the most ‘electable’ won a primary,” said U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, who supports Texas Gov. Rick Perry. “John Kerry learned that lesson the hard way in 2004.”
Though Romney squeaked out an eight-vote win in Iowa, 75 percent of that state’s Republicans voted for somebody else. To veteran Republican consultant Tucker Eskew, who got his start in South Carolina, the question is whether any of Romney’s rivals can solidify conservative support.
“This is the fundamental issue,” Eskew said, “how much will the ‘ABM’ (Anybody But Mitt) vote coalesce vs. to what degree will it be fragmented?”
Some conservatives remain leery of Romney. Endorsements from Haley and Loftis, both elected with tea party support, were designed to bridge that gap.
But Talbert Black Jr., South Carolina coordinator for the Campaign for Liberty, said the endorsements don’t carry a lot of weight, particularly Haley’s. To some tea partyers and other Republicans, she has lost her luster.
A Winthrop University Poll last month found only 35 percent of South Carolina voters, and 53 percent of Republicans, approve of the governor’s performance. Haley has said she pays little attention to polls.
But, said Donehue, the GOP consultant, “Right now in South Carolina she’s only slightly more popular than head lice.”