The Republican primary moved to South Carolina Wednesday, with Mitt Romney’s rivals confronting the very harsh reality that the Jan. 21 contest there could represent the final chance for many of them to mount a serious challenge to Governor Romney’s race towards the GOP Nomination.
Mr. Romney criticized fellow candidates Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich by name Wednesday, saying their attacks “will fall entirely flat.”
The GOP candidates were still absorbing Romney’s victory in the New Hampshire primary, although the victory was expected it was his ability to garner some 40% of the vote that will not have gone un-noticed especially by the Obama campaign team. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas came in a solid second with 23%. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who had gambled on a strong performance in New Hampshire, was third with 17%.
Discussions were already under way among tea-party, conservative and evangelical activists, many of whom are uncomfortable with Mr. Romney’s previous centrist positions, about whether they can rally around a single candidate who can stop Mr. Romney rather than continuing to split the conservative vote.
But short of one of the more conservative candidates dropping out, it isn’t clear how that would happen. Neither Mr. Gingrich, a former House speaker, nor former Pennsylvania Gov. Rick Santorum nor Gov. Perry of Texas has suggested any willingness to step aside.
Instead, South Carolina is likely to see intensified attacks on the front-runner. Mr. Gingrich in particular has signaled he will go after Mr. Romney for favoring abortion rights earlier in his career and for his tenure at Bain Capital, a private-equity firm at which Mr. Gingrich says Mr. Romney took big payouts while ignoring the plight of workers who got laid off.
Ads for several of the candidates have already begun airing on South Carolina television stations.
Mr. Romney made it clear Wednesday that his strategy will be to portray Republicans who question his actions at Bain as joining forces with President Barack Obama to attack the American system.
“I understand President Obama is going to put free enterprise on trial,” Mr. Romney said on CNN Wednesday morning. “Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich are going to be witnesses for the prosecution.”
He added, “All these attacks will fall entirely flat, as they did last night.”
Mr. Gingrich has called the suggestion that he is attacking free enterprise “baloney,” adding that Bain was guilty of particular excesses.
The former House speaker is scheduled to give what his aides are billing as a major address Wednesday in Rock Hill, S.C.
South Carolina offers a different electorate from New Hampshire, and Mr. Romney could sustain some damage there even if he does well in the primary. The state is Southern and conservative, and a political-action committee that is supporting Mr. Gingrich will have millions to spend in going after Mr. Romney.
Mr. Gingrich has expressed anger that his lead in the Iowa caucuses dissipated after a group allied with Mr. Romney launched harsh attacks against him, and at times his animus toward the former Massachusetts governor seems personal. He has said that South Carolina is a state he must win. Messrs. Santorum and Perry also don’t have a clear a path forward if they fail to do well in South Carolina.
Mr. Romney’s momentum is considerable after prevailing in Iowa and New Hampshire. On Tuesday, Messrs. Gingrich and Santorum each won about 10% of the vote, coming in fourth and fifth. Mr. Perry, who didn’t contest the state, drew about 1% of the vote.
After the South Carolina contest, the remaining candidates will head to Florida, by far the biggest state in the primary season so far. With several major media markets, it takes a good deal of money and organization to compete there, giving Mr. Romney a significant advantage.