ANDERSON, South Carolina (CNN) -- He is the methodical tortoise of the Republican field, and well aware conservative South Carolina could prove the defining test.
So a few moments into his remarks at the Main Street Deli in tiny Anderson, South Carolina, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney draws a distinction.
"Of the four major Republican candidates for president, there is only one in favor of the federal amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman," Romney tells the gathering. "And that is me."
A year ago, the obstacles to Romney were many, especially here: He's a Mormon, he's from Massachusetts, and he's a onetime supporter of abortion rights facing skepticism his conversion to abortion opponent is heartfelt -- and not a political calculation.
"I think Roe v. Wade should be overturned," Romney told reporters after a stop this week at a Christian adoption agency in Greenville.
Seventeen visits and 32 days of campaigning in South Carolina have helped move Romney from nowhere into contention. Recent polls suggest a three-way pack at the top of the field here -- former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee and Romney. Watch how Romney has made progress on the campaign trail »
That Romney is competitive here impresses people like Spartanburg County Republican Chairman Rick Beltram, who credits Romney with patiently and methodically answering his skeptics and addressing his vulnerabilities.
"If you look at how he has performed in the last six months versus all other candidates, he has made amazing progress going forward," Beltram said.
Progress has not come cheaply.
Romney has kept the busiest travel schedule of the major Republican candidates, and dipped into his personal savings to help pay for an aggressive early state advertising effort; in South Carolina alone he is approaching $1.3 million in TV ad spending.
The results: He leads in the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, is ahead or in a dead heat with Giuliani in Michigan (Romney' birth state), and is betting early wins would give him the momentum for what could be a decisive victory once the calendar shifts south to South Carolina.
"So let the national polls be based on name recognition and general reputation and let me win the primaries and I will be happy," Romney said Wednesday after a morning event in Columbia.
That rivals are taking notice is proof of Romney's rise.
"Now the governor of Massachusetts has apparently spent 20 million of his own personal fortune, and apparently a good chunk of that in South Carolina," Thompson told a South Carolina audience this week. "All I got to say is, 'Governor, you can't buy South Carolina.' "
Bring that up with Romney and he first smiles, then takes a dig at Thompson's work ethic.
"If you want to get strong in these early states, you have got to show up, you have got to work hard, and I think that accounts for the strength of my campaign."
He runs the campaign like a business -- and makes constant adjustments to deal with changing circumstances.
When religious broadcaster Pat Robertson endorsed Giuliani on Wednesday, Romney initially went easy.
"There are going to be a lot of people that are going to line up behind different candidates," he said.
But the endorsement was one of the topics of discussion when Romney met later with his top South Carolina advisers. They were surprised by the Robertson endorsement, and concerned if left unanswered it could help Giuliani make inroads with evangelicals and other Christian conservatives, the very voters Romney is targeting.
So at his next event, in Hilton Head, Romney was ready with a tougher line.
"I don't think the Republican Party will choose a pro-choice, pro-gay civil union candidate to lead our party," Romney said.
Soon, the others will unleash their advertising budgets, and South Carolina is known for bare-knuckled attacks in direct mail pieces and phone calls.
Romney's in-state advisers, themselves veterans of past bruising battles here, have warned of attacks on everything from his Mormon faith to ads casting him as a "flip-flopper" on abortion and other issues.
"Well, we will see what the other folks throw at us," Romney said.
For all his progress, significant time and hurdles remain.
"I would say that if he didn't have the Mormon issue that he would be the clear front-runner and the race would be almost over," said Beltram, the Spartanburg County GOP chairman. "That is definitely hampering him somewhat, although he has done exceptionally well talking about it and working with a lot of the social conservatives and the evangelical Baptist group."
Romney says he answers the questions as they come, and knows there will be more.
But as he worked the crowd at the 9th Annual Chili Cook-off in Anderson the other night, a sample from the Main Street Deli in hand ("Very good. Hot and spicy," was his assessment), it was clear Methodical Mitt likes the taste of things so far. E-mail to a friend
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