Weak Tea and Dirty Tricks in South Carolina

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Greenville, South Carolina

A few minutes after Rick Santorum had finished addressing a packed wings joint here on Sunday, Bill Gautsch felt that he’d seen the man who can stop Mitt Romney. “He’s the closest thing to Jim DeMint that I’ve seen,” Gautsch said, referring to the state’s junior Republican senator, a hero of the Tea Party. “And Mitt Romney is the least like Jim DeMint.” DeMint “stands up to be a single voice crying in the wilderness” for conservative values, he explained. While “Romney seems like a guy who holds his finger up in the air to see which way the wind might be blowing.”

But, I reminded Gautch, doesn’t the establishment candidate tend to win South Carolina Republican primaries? Think of John McCain in 2008, George W. Bush in 2000, Bob Dole in 1996. Maybe, he said, but 2012 will be different. Gautch told me about a 2010 congressional race in the state’s third district, which covers South Carolina’s northwestern corner, in which a longtime state assemblyman was very nearly defeated by an anti-abortion activist who owns an ice cream business. “There’s something different in South Carolina this go-around.”

Possibly. But right now, the Tea Party’s prospects of stopping Mitt here look dim. Romney comes into South Carolina with a full head of steam, and the Tea Party forces here are deeply divided. At the same time, South Carolina might be the only place capable of dismantling a candidate like Romney. In the newsstand edition of TIME this week, now available online to subscribers, I have a story about the Palmetto State and its signature brand of savage, below-the-belt politics. A political culture shaped by the late Lee Atwater has seen everything from push polling about a candidate’s Jewish faith to the famous 2000 smear that claimed John McCain had sired an illegitimate black child, and anonymous mailers four years ago deriding Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith. One of the state’s most prominent operatives, the late Rod Shealy, paid a black felon to run for office in a bid to drive up  turnout to assist another candidate, who happened to be his sister. (He paid a $500 fine and, after a short hiatus, returned to a busy political career.) Days before the 2010 Republican primary, Republican governor Nikki Haley was slammed with salacious allegations of an extramarital affair.

“It’s a blood sport,” says Republican Congressman Tim Scott of his state’s political culture. “It hurts.” In a climate like this—and the negative advertising is already flying, to the tune of at least $9 million—there’s no telling just what might get thrown at Mitt Romney.

Which brings us back to Gautsch’s point. No one doubts the Tea Party’s Palmetto overall power. Whether that power can be marshaled effectively against Romney is another question. Last night, Romney arrived for a rally in Columbia escorted by Haley, a one-time darling of the Tea Party who has endorsed Romney, and who fired up the crowd by complimenting Romney on his New Hampshire “landslide.” Haley’s star has dimmed here in recent months, even with Republicans, and some Tea Party activists are furious over her support for Romney. But they also concede that Romney has won endorsements from some of the state’s Tea Party icons, including the State Treasurer, Curtis Loftus, and praise from others, including DeMint himself.

“What Romney’s done effectively is, he’s gotten two Tea Party figures—Loftus and Haley—to come out and endorse him,” says Chris Lawton, a leader of the Greenville Tea Party. How did he feel about that? “Disappointment would be an understatement.” And what about Jim DeMint, who endorsed Romney four years ago? A DeMint endorsement “could make a real big difference between who won and who didn’t,” says Lawton’s Greenville Tea Party colleague, Bill Rhodes. So far DeMint has remained officially neutral. But given that he has predicted Romney will win the state, and criticized the attacks on his Bain Capital record, Romney’s rivals shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for DeMint to rescue them with his support. And without guidance from on high, the state’s more than 100 Tea Party groups are unlikely to unify around a single anti-Mitt.

“The Tea Parties will never coalesce behind a candidate because there are so many factions working,” says Lawton. That’s great news for Mitt Romney. But it could also mean that his rivals will be all the more desperate—and all the more likely to practice the political black magic this state has perfected.