In 2008, former South Carolina governor Jim Edwards devoted four months of his life to be the de facto co-chair of Mitt Romney’s campaign in the state, raising money and organizing supporters statewide. This time around not only is he not helping the Romney campaign, he’s not even endorsing Romney. Instead, he tells TIME, he is considering backing Rick Santorum. “He’s a good man, and he doesn’t change his positions,” Edwards says. “He’s steadfast in his beliefs and he’s a true conservative.”
Edwards’ defection says less about Rick Santorum’s chances in South Carolina, where the Iowa upstart has been mostly absent in recent days and where his Catholicism won’t help him with evangelicals, than it does about the challenge Romney will face in the next 11 days as he tries to clinch the GOP nomination by the end of January.
South Carolina is more diverse and politically pragmatic than many commentators make it seem, and Romney’s campaign has smartly targeted moderate coastal retirees at successful events in recent weeks. And while Newt Gingrich, whom Edwards is also looking at, and others are preparing a blistering set of attacks on Romney based on his leadership of Bain Capital, the Palmetto state’s reputation as a hot bed of dirty tricks is often overstated, and Romney’s well-funded campaign is likely to give as well as it gets.
But the litany of challenges Romney faces there is real: Romney’s position on health care, his support for the 2008 bank bailout and his Mormon faith all alienate the conservative base. That combination, Edwards feels, will put a ceiling on how well Romney can do, no matter how well he performed in New Hampshire. In 2008, Edwards says, “[Romney] came in [polling] 23%, and at election day he was around 22%. He doesn’t seem to be growing.” In particular, it’s the lack of consistent conservative positions that make Romney most vulnerable, Edwards says. Several candidates including Romney have tried to get Edwards’ endorsement this time around, and though he’s not endorsing Santorum yet, with the Pennsylvania Senator he says, “There’s no question about where he stands.”
Another of Romney’s 2008 South Carolina de-facto co-chairs, former Rep. Tom Hartnett, is backing Romney again in this cycle. Hartnett says Romney’s doing better than he was last time. “He’s looking real comfortable and that matters down here,” Hartnett says. Hartnett, a Catholic, says he thinks Romney will be hurt by his Mormon faith, and attributes his limited success in 2008 in part to that. But he also says South Carolina’s pragmatism may be more of an incentive to support Romney than people recognize: South Carolinians are proud of having picked the eventual nominee in every race since 1980, and they want someone who can beat Obama, Hartnett says.