Republican presidential hopeful and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney… (Justin Sullivan / Getty…)
Reporting from Rock Hill, Columbia and Ridgeway, — A day after Mitt Romney's lopsided New Hampshire victory, the Republican presidential race shifted to South Carolina, where his rivals face possibly their last shot at stopping him from sealing the nomination.
Romney's opponents are betting that a strongly conservative state with a large evangelical population will reject a former Massachusetts governor with a mixed record on social issues. But Romney is leading in polls here, and South Carolina appears ripe for Romney's economic message. The state has regained less than a third of the 165,000 jobs it lost in the recession.
Romney's advertising in South Carolina has focused relentlessly on his pledge to revive the economy by shrinking government. It is a message he hopes will resonate not just with moderate Republicans in Myrtle Beach, Charleston and other coastal areas, but also with many of the conservative upstate evangelicals who dominate the GOP in South Carolina.
And even if evangelicals spurn him, his opponents are almost certain to carve up that vote, considerably enhancing Romney's chances of winning the state.
So far, polls suggest, the race is Romney's to lose, as even his rival Newt Gingrich conceded Wednesday.
"Look, let's be clear: If Romney can win South Carolina, he's probably going to be the nominee," the former House speaker told MSNBC.
South Carolina's six-man brawl opened with new assaults on Romney's business record by Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Supporters of Romney, in turn, resumed airing a TV attack ad against Gingrich.
From Charleston Harbor to the northern hill country, the White House contenders scattered across South Carolina, braving rain all the way.
Local newscasts were crammed with scenes of the would-be presidents: Rep. Ron Paul of Texas whipping up "End the Fed!" cheers at a Columbia airplane hangar rally, Gingrich signing books in Spartanburg, Perry shaking hands at a Lizard's Thicket diner in Lexington.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who finished third in the New Hampshire primary, hopes to erode Romney's support among moderates.
Romney finished fourth here in 2008, but a win on Jan. 21 could make him unstoppable in Florida's primary 10 days later, essentially ending the contest by Feb. 1.
Romney took pains Wednesday to diminish expectations. "I know it's an uphill battle," he told ABC.
Most outspoken in challenging him was Gingrich, who was the front-runner in South Carolina polls before the onslaught of attack ads by the pro-Romney group.
In remarks to a packed banquet hall in upstate Rock Hill, Gingrich rejected Romney's assertion that questioning his record as chief executive of Bain Capital was tantamount to attacking free enterprise, calling it a "smoke screen" to dodge accountability.
"Crony capitalism, where people pay each other off at the expense of the rest of the country, is not free enterprise — and raising questions about that is not wrong," said Gingrich, alluding to job losses in South Carolina and elsewhere that resulted from Bain takeover deals.
Gingrich, who came in fourth in New Hampshire, said he would focus in South Carolina on what he described as persecution of Christians, whether by judicial rulings that constrain church liberties in America or by repressive regimes abroad.
"We will not tolerate a speech dictatorship in this country against Christianity," he told the crowd in Rock Hill, drawing a standing ovation.
Perry has been stressing his Christian faith, as well as his support of gun ownership rights, with a stop Wednesday at a weapons shop in Aiken. For the third day in a row, he also hammered Romney for what he called inappropriate "get-rich schemes" that cost jobs while making money for him and his partners at Bain Capital.
"I understand the difference between venture capital and vulture capitalism," he said at Lizard's Thicket.
On NBC's "Today" show, Romney said he expected such remarks from President Obama, "but we didn't expect that Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry would become the witnesses for his prosecution, if you will."
For good measure, Gingrich released a "greatest hits" video of Romney gaffes, with no pretense of providing context. Among them: "corporations are people," "I enjoy being able to fire people" and "I've always been, if you will, a rodent and rabbit hunter, all right? Small varmints, if you will."
Speaking Wednesday evening to a crowd of several hundred in Columbia, Romney said: "It's been a tough year. It's been a tough three years for people in the Palmetto State — unemployment at 9.9%, still. Remember the president was going to get America working again.
"He's failed," Romney said to applause. "Twenty-five million people out of work or have stopped looking for work or are seriously underemployed. … He's over his head."