Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney addresses a town hall meeting… (Chip Somodevilla / Getty…)
Reporting from Greenville, S.C. — A fierce presidential primary in South Carolina is taking shape as Republicans struggle for the solution that eluded the party in Iowa: persuading conservatives to coalesce around a single alternative to Mitt Romney.
With his near-win in the Iowa caucuses, Rick Santorum emerged Wednesday as lead contender for the role.
But he faces not a single opponent for conservative support but three — Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Ron Paul — the same dynamic that splintered that bloc in Iowa.
And in a Deep South state notorious for vicious campaigns — John McCain was stunned during the 2000 race for the GOP presidential nomination by phone calls telling voters falsely that he had fathered a black child — the former Pennsylvania senator will have to figure out how to fight his rivals with minimal cash.
"This is a mean state," said Katon Dawson, a senior Perry advisor in South Carolina. "It's going to get personal."
The Jan. 21 primary is already personal for Gingrich, the front-runner in South Carolina polls since November.
Days before the Iowa vote, the former House speaker became the target of South Carolina attack ads run by Paul and supporters of Romney and Perry. A Paul ad running Wednesday on a Greenville radio station's website branded Gingrich a "counterfeit conservative."
Santorum expects to be next.
"It's just a matter of time," said former U.S. Rep. J. Gresham Barrett, chairman of Santorum's South Carolina campaign.
Santorum has spent more time in South Carolina than any of his opponents, tapping into networks of evangelicals who share his conservative stands on abortion and same-sex marriage. He plans to return Sunday after a debate in New Hampshire.
Romney too will wedge some South Carolina stops into the final run-up to New Hampshire's primary on Tuesday. The former Massachusetts governor plans to campaign with McCain and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley on Thursday in Charleston and Friday in Myrtle Beach — coastal havens of retirees and others with relatively moderate politics.
Romney finished fourth in the state's 2008 primary, losing to McCain, who went on to win the nomination. The senator from Arizona endorsed Romney on Wednesday.
"Pitching Romney to South Carolina was like trying to sell a rib-eye to a vegetarian," said Wesley Donehue, a South Carolina consultant for Romney four years ago.
Donehue, who this year was senior South Carolina advisor to Michele Bachmann until she quit the presidential race Wednesday, said Romney in 2008 came off as slick and robotic, despite heavy spending on TV ads.
To some of the evangelical Christians who dominate the GOP primary, Romney's Mormon religion remains a problem — and it is a reason South Carolina has long been his weakest early state.
"Let's face it, that's an issue, there's no doubt about it," said J. David Woodard, a Clemson University pollster, author of "The New Southern Politics" and a consultant to GOP candidates.
But Romney's biggest asset in South Carolina, as it was in Iowa, could be the failure of conservatives to unite behind anyone else. A Romney victory in South Carolina would all but assure him the nomination, denying all of his opponents bragging rights and the ability to raise the money needed to sustain a viable national campaign.
In remarks Wednesday on the Christian Broadcast Network, Pat Robertson recalled similar circumstances in his 1988 quest for the Republican nomination. His surprise second-place finish in Iowa buoyed his hopes for South Carolina, but he was trounced here by Vice President George H.W. Bush. Then as now, the primary here immediately followed New Hampshire's.
"It takes money — M-O-N-E-Y — lots of it," said Robertson, who pronounced Romney's nomination inevitable.
A wild card in South Carolina will be Perry, the Texas governor. He announced his candidacy in South Carolina. Advisors presumed his military service, Southern heritage and evangelical ties would be key attractions. But here, as elsewhere, his popularity collapsed as poor debate performances raised doubts for many voters about his qualifications. Many doubt that he can revive his candidacy here.
"He's doing a good job of harming Gingrich and Romney, but I'm not sure he's doing a great job of helping himself," Woodard said of Perry's TV advertising in South Carolina.
After his dismal fifth-place finish in Iowa, Perry scrapped plans for launching a bus tour that was to begin Wednesday at a gun store in Aiken. But he indicated, in his first public acknowledgment that his campaign would continue past Iowa, that he would return soon.
"Here we come South Carolina!!!" Perry posted on Twitter and Facebook.
Dawson suggested Perry would wage an aggressive campaign.
"We're ready to rumble down here and talk about a conservative revolution," he said. "We're the underdog."