South Carolina conservatives brace for Romney win

Mitt Romney's economy-themed pitch has resonance in South Carolina, but some conservative votes are slow to warm to him.

Story highlights

  • Upstate South Carolina is a hotbed of evangelicalism and conservative political activity
  • Romney has been campaigning mostly along the fiscal- and military-minded coast
  • Gingrich, Santorum and Perry are carving up the culturally conservative Upstate vote

Marilee Walmer is no fan of Mitt Romney's.

An administrative assistant from Taylors, South Carolina, Walmer is backing Rick Santorum in the Republican presidential race.

As she tells it, Romney "doesn't have a backbone."

But like other conservative Republicans here, she is bracing for the prospect of a Romney victory in the South Carolina primary on Saturday.

"It's not that people here are in favor of Mitt Romney," Walmer said. "It's just that so many people are splintering the votes in so many directions that by default he could very easily win. But if he wins, I wouldn't take it to mean that we are all gung ho for him. It just means that he eked it out and he's really lucky."

A similar fear is gripping conservative voters across South Carolina's Upstate, a picturesque territory fanning out from the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains and anchored by the cities of Greenville and Spartanburg.

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With less than a week until the primary, the anybody-but-Romney wing of the Republican party here finds itself increasingly divided between Santorum and Newt Gingrich, with Rick Perry still alive but fading into the background, and Ron Paul holding onto his reliable base of libertarian support.

"Romney is so boring I can never remember what he says," explained Loretta Gilchrist of Spartanburg, who said that a recent Romney television appearance was "so boring" it sent her to the DVR in search of a movie to watch instead.

"I wasn't going to vote for him anyhow unless he is the last man standing," Gilchrist said. "But he might be."

Largely white, part urban and part rural, the South Carolina Upstate is a hotbed of evangelicalism and Christian conservative political activity.

Romney's economy-themed pitch certainly has resonance here. Small towns across the region have been hit by manufacturing job losses in recent decades. Meanwhile, the Greenville-Spartanburg metro area is host to several international companies like BMW and Michelin.

But this was Mike Huckabee territory in the 2008 Republican primary.

The former Arkansas governor and Baptist minister banked a large share of the GOP vote in the socially conservative Upstate, where he won Greenville, Spartanburg and Anderson counties -- three of the 10 largest Republican counties in South Carolina.

But Huckabee came up short to John McCain in that race, because Republicans opposed to the more moderate McCain ended up splitting their votes among Huckabee, Romney and Fred Thompson.

McCain's narrow victory in South Carolina propelled him to a decisive win in the Florida primary, and he wrapped up the Republican nomination soon after.

An eerily similar dynamic is playing out now, with Romney campaigning mostly along the fiscal- and military-minded South Carolina coast while leaving Gingrich, Santorum and Perry to carve up the culturally conservative vote in the Upstate.

Santorum and Gingrich appear to be taking the lead.

At a Republican forum Friday evening held in a high school cafeteria in Duncan, nearly 500 voters listened eagerly as the two candidates explained their positions on energy, immigration and entitlement reform.

Santorum, a fierce and unapologetic social conservative, urged the crowd not to compromise their beliefs when they go to the polls.

"Do not defer your judgment to those who do not share your values," he said.

Gingrich, though, acknowledged the worrisome political reality now facing conservatives.

"If we end up splitting the conservative vote, we're going to stumble into nominating somebody that 95% of the people in this room are going to be uncomfortable with," Gingrich warned the Duncan audience, referring to Romney.

But Gingrich and Santorum appear to be doing little to break out of the deadlock.

In their stump speeches or on the saturated television airwaves, both Republicans have largely refused to train their fire on each other and are taking aim at Romney.

Instead, each is holding out hope -- perhaps naively -- that his campaign message alone will be enough to rally conservative voters and break him out of the anti-Romney pack.

"I am going to primarily focus on the contrast with Gov. Romney, and then say to people, if you look at the polling data, clearly if conservatives are going to rally around one candidate, it's going to be me," Gingrich told reporters on Friday.

Santorum has a similar game plan.

"I think there are differences between me and Gingrich, but frankly there are bigger differences between Romney and I than Newt and I," he told CNN after a recent stop in Greenville.

But some voters remain worried that the fundamental shape of the Republican race does not appear to be changing, a status quo that favors Romney.

Several Republicans expressed hope in recent days that one of the candidates would drop out and endorse the other in a last-minute bid to unify conservatives -- an unlikely prospect.

"If Perry or Santorum or Newt dropped out they would pick up a lot of supporters," said Dozier Brooks, a former Greenville County Council chairman who is supporting Gingrich. "If one or two of them would drop out and get behind one of the conservatives, we would be better off."

Pat Wavle, a longtime conservative activist in Greenville, said Republicans are "shooting ourselves in the foot" by failing to coalesce behind a single conservative challenger to Romney.

She said Gingrich and Santorum should consider teaming up.

"That would be a great ticket," Wavle said. "There is no question they would beat Romney at that point. Even the Ron Paul people might come on board."

Santorum may have a late edge over Gingrich, thanks to the buzz-worthy endorsement he picked up Saturday from a constellation of national social conservative groups that met in Texas over the weekend to decide on a candidate to support.

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"Everything started breaking late in Iowa," said former South Carolina Rep. Gresham Barrett, Santorum's top supporter in the state. "We are right where we need to be. Right now we are gaining. I think we are headed in the right direction."

Stephen Brown, a Greenville attorney who unsuccessfully sought the state party chairmanship last year, has done the math and is not so certain.

A Santorum supporter, Brown is aggressively working his network of Republican activists and trying to peel away Gingrich supporters with warnings that Romney can win the primary with just 30% of the vote.

If conservatives fail to come together in the final week of the South Carolina race, he said, Romney will almost certainly be the Republican nominee.

"I am very concerned about that," Brown said. "I am very concerned."