The composition of Romney’s support Tuesday underscored the advantages the front-runner holds. He was the clear winner among self-identified Republicans and among the often-decisive group of Republicans who consider themselves “somewhat conservative.”
He also was the clear choice among the overwhelming majority of voters who cited economic issues as the principal motivator in their decision and among the one-third of the electorate who said that the ability to beat President Obama was the quality they most sought in a nominee.
That combination has been a formula for success in the past, and it is why Romney is so well positioned after only two states have voted. He also has other advantages: His campaign is far better funded than that of any of his rivals, and his infrastructure is much more impressive.
But Romney’s campaign advisers are bracing for what they expect will be the nastiest contest yet. South Carolina has a history of negative politics, and the contest there will be do-or-die for many of his rivals. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and an independent fundraising group supporting him have already gone on the attack. Romney’s record at Bain Capital and his conservative credentials could face an all-out assault.
The Palmetto State contest has long been considered potentially difficult for Romney, but he could win it in the same way Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) won it four years ago — with just 33 percent of the vote, the result of a crowded field and divided conservative opposition.
Romney will concentrate most on those areas of the state where Republicans are fiscal conservatives first and social conservatives second and hope that Gingrich, former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry compete for votes in those areas dominated by social conservatives.
New Hampshire voters did nothing to answer the question of which candidate is the conservative alternative to Romney. In fact, they further muddied that race in ways that may simply help the former governor.
Instead of rewarding Santorum or Gingrich, who was endorsed by the conservative New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper, Granite State voters gave another boost to the libertarian candidacy of Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), who remains one of the genuine surprises of the race.
Santorum hoped that his near-victory in the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, coupled with a good showing in New Hampshire, would position him in South Carolina as the main Romney challenger. Instead, after an uneven campaign over the past week, he was battling Gingrich for fourth place.