Divided Conservatives Are Romney’s Best Weapon in SC

Friday, 13 Jan 2012 12:00 PM

By Dan Weil

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Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Rick Perry are launching strong conservative campaigns in South Carolina against front-runner Mitt Romney. You might think that three feisty opponents represent a problem for the former Massachusetts governor. Actually, they offer a solution for him, Politico reports. By dividing support among conservative voters, the troika can help produce a Palmetto State victory for Romney.

Evangelicals, who probably will account for more than 50 percent of the primary voters next Saturday, are still split over whom they’ll support. The stage is being set for a repeat of 2008, when the moderate John McCain came out of New Hampshire with momentum after a victory there and beat a field of conservatives who split votes between each other.

“Do the math,” Lisa Van Riper, president of South Carolina Citizens for Life and a political science professor at North Greenville University, told Politico. “As long as the alternative-to-Romney vote stays this divided, it’s going to be very difficult for an alternative to emerge.”

South Carolina could represent a make-or-break state for former House Speaker Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Santorum, and Texas Gov. Perry. So all three are giving it everything they’ve got. Even Ron Paul could siphon some conservative votes by trumpeting his opposition to abortion.

“I don’t see any kind of a coalescing at this point,” Oran Smith, who runs the Palmetto Family Council, told Politico. He said members of his group support each candidate, including Romney.

Evangelicals aren’t the only conservatives who have failed to unite behind a Romney alternative. The same is true of the tea party. One of the most powerful tea partyers in the state, Gov. Nikki Haley, is actively campaigning for Romney. And Sen. Jim DeMint, though he hasn’t endorsed anyone, has defended Romney this week against criticism from Gingrich and Perry over his tenure at private equity firm Bain Capital.

“Whether we like it or not, Mitt Romney is the beneficiary of three candidates who are very strong and going after the tea party base with a concerted effort — Perry, Gingrich, Santorum,” uncommitted freshman Rep. Tim Scott told Politico.

Romney, who has based his campaign largely on his ability to boost the economy, also should benefit from the likelihood that the economy will play a bigger role in South Carolina’s vote than in Iowa and New Hampshire. The latter two states have unemployment rates below the national level of 8.5 percent, while the Palmetto State suffers from 10 percent unemployment.

“If they think he’s the guy who can fix the economy, some of them will vote their pocketbook and not just social values. And that’s different than what we usually do upstate,” LaDonna Ryggs, chairwoman of the Spartanburg County GOP, told Politico.

In addition, many South Carolina voters see Romney as the candidate with the best chance to beat President Barack Obama in a state that prides itself on selecting victors. If voters see a Romney nomination as inevitable, they may be more inclined to opt for him, to continue the state’s streak of picking every Republican presidential nominee since 1980.

If a conservative is to emerge from the fray to offer a single challenge to Romney, Politico’s conversations with South Carolina Republicans indicate Santorum has the best chance to be that man. “Folks are talking about Santorum,” former Gov. Mark Sanford told the news service.

To be sure, Santorum didn’t have to face any negative TV ads in Iowa. That’s about to change, with Romney’s super PAC set to unleash an ad Friday attacking Santorum for supporting earmarks to voting to raise the government’s debt limit.


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