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Romney stops smiling in South Carolina

Holly Bailey, Yahoo News
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Romney in Charleston (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

CHARLESTON, S.C.—This was not the week Mitt Romney had been hoping for in South Carolina, but he's doing his best not to let it show.

Appearing at a small rally outside his newly opened campaign office here, Romney wore the careful smile familiar from his campaign photo, the same smile he wears at debates, even when his opponents are attempting to rip him to shreds. It's an expression clearly intended to project confidence and ease—a look that seems well practiced by a candidate who knows that one dour look can easily halt the careful choreography of an entire campaign.

When a woman yelled from the crowd to ask when he'll release his tax returns ("April"), and when he was confronted by an Occupy protester about his wealth along the rope line, Romney wore the smile.

But it did, occasionally, disappear—wiped out by looks better described as anxious or annoyed. One of those moments came when Romney, for the second day in a row, took aim at rival Newt Gingrich, who has surged in the polls here in the final days before Saturday's primary.

He tied an attack on Gingrich to one on Obama's jobs speech in Florida today. Romney said the location of Obama's speech—Disney World in Orlando—was "obviously appropriate" because he's been "living in Fantasyland" when it comes to his economic policies.

"He may bump into Speaker Gingrich down there in Fantasyland," Romney continued. "I only say that because the speaker was talking about all the jobs that he'd helped create in the Reagan years. He had been in Congress two years when Reagan came to office. The idea that he was the author of Reaganomics, not real likely."

Romney added: "The idea that people in Washington think that somehow they are responsible after they have been there for two years for creating millions of jobs, it is the kind of fantasy that happens."

Romney largely avoided reporters as he made his way down the rope line and into his campaign outpost, where he joined volunteers in making get-out-the-vote phone calls to potential supporters.

As late as last month, many top backers of Romney's bid in South Carolina were unsure he would make a serious effort to win the state's first in the south Republican primary—and there were signs of Romney's last minute preparations today.

The Charleston office, which only opened this month, is located in an old, vacated sewing store in a strip mall on the outskirts of Charleston proper that is populated by New Agey shops, including a holistic wellness center called "Bending to the Light" ("Tai Chi!" the signs outside read).

While Romney was inside, Stuart Stevens, his chief strategist, chatted outside with reporters, who grilled him on the race's turn of events, including Rick Perry's decision to drop and back Gingrich.

"I think the race has a lot of clarity," Stevens insisted, adding that he believes Perry supporters who are anti-government and anti-Washington will jump to Romney. He said the race is now a "clear choice" between Romney and three Washington insiders.

"You only have one candidate up there who is not from Washington, one candidate up there that has private sector experience," Stevens said. "You have two candidates who seem sort of misty-eyed about the Clinton era… Add up the years of government service and Washington time between those candidates against somebody who hasn't served in Washington. It's a pretty clear choice."

But the Romney team continues to ignore Rick Santorum and Ron Paul in favor of focusing exclusively on Gingrich. For the second day in a row, the campaign held a conference call attacking Gingrich as an "unreliable leader," this one featuring former Sen. John Sununu and New York Rep. Peter King, who told reporters that a Gingrich presidency would not be just dangerous for the country, but for the world.

"If by some chance he was elected president, then for the country's sake, we would be constantly trying to get ourselves out of crisis that Newt created in addition to the real crisis we have with China and al-Qaeda and going through the whole, the whole panoply of threats including you know, the economic crisis our country faces," King said. "So, we cannot afford Newt Gingrich this time. As Republicans, we cannot afford him to be our nominee."

Asked if Romney agrees with King's assessment, Stevens paused and smiled. "I think we'll let Mr. King speak on that one," he said, adding, "That's a conference call I'm sorry I missed."

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