Can Romney get the GOP nomination without winning South Carolina? Inside his mysterious campaign in the Palmetto State

GREENVILLE, S.C.—The elderly woman made a beeline for Mitt Romney. Her hand was ensconced in a giant, red-foam baseball mitt, one the Romney campaign had distributed to supporters in this state four years ago, during his first run for the presidency. She excitedly waved it in the air as she charged toward him.

"Remember this?" the woman yelled, thrusting the mitt toward Romney, almost whacking him in the face.

That red-foam baseball mitt—which Romney coolly dodged Friday while signing autographs in a firehouse during a 24-hour campaign swing here—is perhaps the last vestige of Romney's 2008 campaign in South Carolina. Four years ago, Romney invested millions of dollars in organization and advertising in the state, only to finish in fourth place in the Palmetto State's traditionally decisive primary. South Carolina has chosen the eventual winner of the Republican nomination in every election since 1980, when Ronald Reagan took the state's delegates.

Yet this time around, Romney has virtually ignored the state, in favor of concentrating on New Hampshire and Florida—the two early states his campaign considers crucial to his quest to become the Republican Party's nominee for president in 2012.

That strategy may be changing, however, as Romney seeks new ways to block the rise of Newt Gingrich, who is now his chief competitor in the race for the nomination. The Romney campaign does not expect to win in Iowa, and his advisers are growing concerned that the winner of the first-in-the-nation caucuses could surge in the polls in New Hampshire, which holds its primary only one week later.

Romney is still expected to win New Hampshire, but the consensus among political observers is that he must win by a large margin, given that he's maintained a 20-point lead or more in the polls there for months. A disappointing finish in New Hampshire would make South Carolina's first-in-the-South primary pivotal for Romney, as it comes before the contests in Florida and Nevada, the two states the Romney campaign considers his best opportunity to crush the momentum of the insurgent candidate—Gingrich or whomever—who emerges from Iowa.

'I'm not sure what Romney's plan has been'

Romney flew to South Carolina Friday to trumpet the endorsement of Nikki Haley, the state's governor. He insisted he would make a major play to win the state's Jan. 21 primary—even as polls show Gingrich leading him there by nearly 20 points.

"It's a real kickoff of a major portion of our campaign," Romney told reporters in Greenville. "We intend to make this a very successful state. I want to win South Carolina. I think it's 50 delegates, but who's counting?"

With a little more than a month before South Carolina's voters cast their ballots, some major Republicans in the state—including ones who supported Romney four years ago--question whether Romney's sudden interest in the state is too little, too late.

The Romney campaign has just three paid staffers in South Carolina. Gingrich, with 11 people on his payroll, has the largest organization in the state. Four years ago, Romney had put several dozen people on the ground by this point in the race.

The one Romney campaign office in South Carolina is located in a nondescript building—marked by a large "for rent" sign out front—on the outskirts of downtown Columbia. Two yard signs taped to a side door that is not visible from the street provide the only evidence that Romney's state headquarters is located inside.

The most telling sign of the uphill battle Romney faces in South Carolina is the skepticism he faces among many leading Republicans who backed his bid four years ago. At this point in the 2008 campaign, Romney had announced more than 100 endorsements among key public officials, political operatives and fundraisers in the state. By comparison, he has announced fewer than 10 endorsements in the state, including Haley's, this year. And many of his key staffers from 2008 remain neutral.

"I made a personal decision to keep my powder dry," Warren Tompkins, an influential Republican strategist in the state who worked for Romney in 2008, told Yahoo News. "I wanted to see how the candidates ran their campaigns and what their commitment would be to South Carolina before making a decision. I'm under a pretty good bit of pressure right now. … But I'm going to wait until after the dust settles in Iowa to make my decision."

Last month, Romney, who has spent just 10 days in the state after formally announcing his candidacy in May, held a town hall at Colite International, a Columbia-based sign company owned by Peter Brown, a longtime Republican bundler. But Brown, who was one of Romney's top fundraisers in 2008 and co-chaired his finance team in South Carolina, is neutral in the race—in part because Romney hasn't made the state a priority.

"Some of us felt like we jumped in too quickly last time, and we wanted to play it more cautious this time. The litmus test is just higher," Brown told Yahoo News. "When people back a candidate, they want to know he's going to give it all in their state. Nobody wants to support somebody when they aren't sure what the plan is. … I'm not sure what Romney's plan has been, and it's been frustrating."

Romney's South Carolina strategy has been puzzling to top Republicans in the state, who say the ex-governor has made a mistake in not investing more time and effort on a race that many still consider wide open.

"Of all the candidates, he's been here the least, and I don't understand why," Chad Connelly, the chairman of the state Republican Party, told Yahoo News.

Connelly has been trying to schedule a meet-and-greet with party supporters and Romney since May—an opportunity he's given to other Republican candidates, including Gingrich, who participated last month. But the Romney campaign has put off his request again and again, citing the former governor's schedule, Connelly said.

"I think it's a missed opportunity," he told Yahoo News. "Retail politics is an expectation here. People want to see candidates, and they don't forget when 'so-and-so' didn't campaign in their town or skipped an event. That's a big deal here."

Curtis Loftis, a tea party conservative who is Romney's state chairman and the state treasurer, dismissed concerns over Romney's lack of visits to the state. Romney has a national strategy that can take him beyond the primaries and onto the general election, Loftis said.

"He's focused on winning all of the primaries—not just one or two or three states," Loftis told Yahoo News. "But we also live in a different world. There's Facebook and Twitter. You don't have to be on the ground to reach out to voters."

'He's not as conservative as people would hope for'

Romney faces doubts in South Carolina over issues that have plagued him elsewhere, including his support for a health care mandate in Massachusetts that is similar to President Obama's health care law, and the perception that because he has changed his mind, he cannot be trusted on key social issues, including abortion.

Paul Thurmond, a Charleston attorney whose father was Strom Thurmond, chaired Romney's grassroots coalition efforts in South Carolina four years ago. This time around, he has told the campaign he won't support Romney because he can't get past his "inconsistencies."

"He's got this background on health care, which has been problematic for him, and his message is really not that new. He's not as conservative as people would hope for," Thurmond, who is neutral in the race, told Yahoo News. "I know he has a history of success with business, but show us some unique ideas, something that can get people back to work. His message, so far, just really isn't resonating."

A lingering concern among Romney aides and supporters is how the candidate's Mormon faith will play in South Carolina, where the evangelical-Christian voting bloc is influential, even if it isn't quite as large as it is Iowa. But Haley said she doesn't believe Romney's religion will be an issue.

"South Carolina just elected a 38-year-old Indian female for governor of South Carolina," Haley told reporters, referring to herself. "What the people of South Carolina care about are values, and family and faith and what you do and results. And I think you can look at the Romneys and you can see this is a family of faith, this is a family of values, and a source of pride for anything they've ever done. I have faith in the people of South Carolina."

Yet Bob Taylor, a dean at Bob Jones University—who gave Romney one of his biggest endorsements in the state four years ago but, like many '08 supporters, is neutral today—said Romney's faith will be a concern for some evangelicals. Still, Taylor said, that doesn't mean they won't vote for him.

"If people are undecided when they head into that voting booth, I think they will cast their vote on who has the best chance of winning," Taylor told Yahoo News. "On that basis, they might well vote for Romney."

Romney aides view Haley's endorsement as a factor that could carry him to victory in South Carolina—though her decision has prompted debate among Republicans here about how influential she might ultimately be on voters.

"The hope for the Romney campaign is that the Haley endorsement helps them have a surge in South Carolina," Rep. Tim Scott, a tea party freshman from Charleston who held a town hall with Romney and Haley on Saturday, told Yahoo News.

Scott, like so many others in the state, is still neutral in the race. He acknowledged "many" conversations with Romney about whom he will support in 2012.

And when asked by Yahoo News whether he planned to endorse Romney, Scott said, "I want to see him more."

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