Romney campaign advisers insist that they are moving forward one state at a time and not taking any contest for granted. Yet Republican observers see Romney executing an ambitious strategy that would quickly maximize his momentum and try to quash any further surges by his rivals.
“If Romney wins the first four states, he’ll be the de facto nominee of the party,” said Steve Schmidt, a senior strategist on Sen. John McCain’s 2008 GOP campaign who is unaffiliated in the current race. Ed Rogers, another unaffiliated Republican strategist, said the notion that Romney may wrap up the nomination by Jan. 31 is “perfectly plausible.”
The new Romney push hinges on his performance in South Carolina, a more traditionally conservative state where he finished fourth in 2008 and until recently appeared to face an uphill fight. But South Carolina’s conservatives do not yet appear to be uniting around a single alternative, opening a path to victory by plurality. A poll released Friday showed Romney with an 18-point lead in the state over his closest opponent, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who had 19 percent support; former House speaker Newt Gingrich followed at 18 percent.
Romney is airing television advertisements across South Carolina, the most recent highlighting his opposition to the National Labor Relations Board’s unsuccessful attempts to prevent Boeing from moving its operations to the state to avoid dealing with unionized workers elsewhere. On Thursday afternoon, Romney swooped into Charleston and Conway for an 18-hour campaign swing with McCain, who won the South Carolina primary in 2008 on his way to the nomination. McCain has been calling his supporters there urging them to get behind Romney.
“He’s gonna win in New Hampshire, and it’s gonna come down, my friends, as it always does, to South Carolina,” McCain (Ariz.) said Friday.
Other surrogates, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, will visit South Carolina before the Jan. 21 primary, while some of Romney’s Iowa staff members have begun relocating there. Romney plans to return next week. “As soon as New Hampshire’s over, he’ll be living here,” said South Carolina Treasurer Curtis Loftis, Romney’s state chairman.
Romney is also reaching out to tea party activists with an electability message. Loftis addressed a tea party rally in Greenville this week, while South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is mobilizing the grass-roots network she assembled for her 2010 race. Loftis said he cut a radio advertisement on Romney’s behalf, along with Haley and conservative commentator Ann Coulter.