The treasurer of this state, Curtis Loftis, describes himself as “Tea Party 35 years ago.” Even in the context of South Carolina politics, he is regarded as a conservative maverick. Yet on this night, Mitt Romney is stopping by his fundraiser at the Mills House Hotel, and Loftis could not be more pleased. Republicans, he says, should have one unifying goal: “to send Barack Obama back to Chicago.” Romney, he believes, is the “one candidate who can win.”
Loftis endorsed Romney in August. The announcement was mishandled by the campaign in Boston and leaked prematurely. Loftis tells me that perhaps 15 of his main Tea Party supporters, “including some people in this room,” were initially angry at him for backing the establishment candidate. But in recent weeks, he says he has “gotten a lot of e-mails saying, ‘I get it.’”
When Romney arrives, he does little more than look presidential and sound patriotic. But Loftis pronounces himself “100 percent confident that Mitt Romney will be the next president of the United States.”
Such confidence is premature. Still, this is the kind of incremental progress among conservatives that could eventually win Romney the nomination. In South Carolina, as elsewhere, he has benefited from the closing of the Republican field and the decline of Rick Perry. Tea Party leaders in the crowd at the Loftis fundraiser are particularly tough on Perry’s immigration views. Romney’s campaign staff, says Loftis, “told me Perry was a three- or four-week phenomenon. They were exactly right.”
Though Perry is no longer a phenomenon, he remains a serious candidate in South Carolina. At some point, the debate stage of the campaign — in which Perry has done poorly — will end, and advertising, organization and money will begin to make more of a difference. Perry has funds in the bank and a strong campaign team on the ground. He continues to aggressively reach out to GOP leaders in search of support. Endorsements from Sen. Jim DeMint or Rep. Tim Scott would weigh heavily with South Carolina Tea Party voters, who remain numerous, energized and defiantly hacked off.
But Perry wants a two-person race in this state, and he hasn’t yet gotten it. Activists are taken with Herman Cain, who opened a headquarters in West Columbia on Oct. 7. Newt Gingrich and other candidates draw interest, crowds and comment. The race in South Carolina has a feeling of fluidity. And the longer the anti-Romney vote stays divided, the better it is for Romney.
South Carolina is the most authentically Southern of the early primaries. If Perry doesn’t effectively consolidate opposition to Romney here — and the primary is only 14 weeks away — it is the sign of a campaign with even larger problems.
Romney — Yankee and Mormon — has idiomatic challenges in South Carolina. But he has handled the state more adeptly than four years ago, when he spent liberally for meager results. This time Romney has managed to keep expectations low, even while gradually upping his profile. His recent speech at the Citadel on defense policy, along with a campaign swing by his wife, Ann, communicated a polite interest in the state. But it is more of a slow courtship than a marriage offer. I heard local GOP operatives — both supporters and skeptics — praise Romney’s slow, steady approach. “He has let everyone else fall by the wayside,” says one neutral official. “He has been quiet for a reason.”
Romney does not need to win South Carolina, but supporters see an outside shot at victory. A divided Republican primary might be taken with 30 percent of the vote. (Last time, John McCain won with 33 percent.) State polls have Romney averaging around 20 percent among likely voters, while one recent survey has him at 27 percent. If this pattern holds, Romney could pounce late in the process with heavy attention and advertising, perhaps turning a second-place finish into a narrow win.
But the whole scenario depends on primary voters remaining scattered among several conservative options. The bad news for Romney is that a majority of his party wants an alternative to his nomination. The good news for Romney is that it hasn’t settled on one.
Meanwhile, Romney will need more conservative supporters such as Curtis Loftis who are convinced that defeating Obama is the overriding political priority. South Carolina’s homegrown political genius, Lee Atwater, used to say that electability doesn’t win primaries. This election could test the theory.