Well Positioned and Plenty Lucky, Romney Works to Hold His Lead in South Carolina

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Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney greets customers as he visits Hudson's Smokehouse in Lexington, South Carolina, January 18, 2012.

Rock Hill, South Carolina

In 2008, Mitt Romney hopped on a plane to Nevada two days before the critical South Carolina primary, convinced that his Mormon faith and the moderate policy positions he took as Massachusetts governor were insurmountable obstacles to winning support from the Palmetto State’s socially conservative voters. He was right. Romney limped to a fourth-place finish in a primary that saw John McCain stave off a challenge from the conservative favorite, Mike Huckabee, largely because former Senator Fred Thompson lurked long enough to siphon away votes.

This time the scenario is drastically different. Two days before the South Carolina primary, Romney boasts a 10-point cushion over Newt Gingrich, according to a new CNN/Time/ORC poll released on Wednesday. Like McCain, Romney is a moderate trying to win over a skeptical, conservative state on his second try. And like McCain, he’s been the beneficiary of a feckless and splintered opposition. The story of the 2012 Republican primary has been voters’ inability to rally behind any one alternative to Romney–and the story hasn’t changed even as the tale reaches what could be its final chapter.

To win Iowa, Romney tapped into the residual goodwill and robust organization he assembled in 2008 and then threaded the needle deftly, tempering expectations before swooping in to K.O. Gingrich and narrowly withstand a Rick Santorum surge. If his triumph in Iowa was a surprise, a win in South Carolina — the state Romney opponents saw as their firewall — would be a coup.

(PHOTOS: The Rich History of Mitt Romney)

Romney is 48 hours away from pulling it off thanks to good timing, plenty of luck and a campaign that has eschewed theatrics to issue a withering — if strained — indictment of President Obama. Romney was bound to do better than in 2008. The mood of the campaign dovetails with Romney’s strengths: he’s a corporate turn-around artist running in a year when economic renewal is the signal issue on voters’ minds. But he is also running a disciplined, professional campaign that contrasts sharply with the ragtag operations of his rivals.

Amid one of the rockiest news cycles of Romney’s campaign, as a trickle of stories about his unreleased tax returns cast a pall over his momentum — on Wednesday, ABC News reported that Romney stashed millions in offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands and donated Bain stock to the Mormon church — Romney won a reprieve when the Drudge Report dredged up the news that one of Gingrich’s ex-wives had sat for interview with ABC News scheduled to air Thursday night. The spurned-wife storyline — which won’t help allay conservatives’ qualms about the thrice-married former Speaker — seems poised to temporarily obscure a tax issue that exposed the vast chasm between the Massachusetts multi-millionaire and the middle-class voters he’s vying to win over.

It’s not the first time Romney has gotten lucky in South Carolina lately. He survived attacks on his record at Bain with minimal scarring, and the episode prompted unlikely allies like Rush Limbaugh to rally to Romney’s side in defense of unfettered free markets. Gingrich, his chief antagonist, spent part of the week backpedaling and will spend the rest running damage control. At the very least, the kerfuffle threatens to blunt his burst of momentum. So far, Romney’s been spared the nasty sabotage that dogged him in 2008, when someone disseminated forged Mormon holiday cards purportedly from Romney. (This year the only victim of the Palmetto State’s signature bare-knuckle politics has been Santorum.)

More importantly for Romney, South Carolina’s vaunted Evangelical voting bloc–some 60% of Republican voters described themselves in such terms in 2008–has failed to coalesce behind an alternative to Romney in time to make an impact. At a powwow on a Texas ranch last weekend, a cadre of leaders from the Christian right anointed Santorum their preferred choice — which lasted for just a few days before Gingrich’s camp tamped down those reports, and any chance Santorum had of capitalizing on the event was neutralized by Newt’s rhetorical flourishes at the GOP’s Monday night debate. The result? A group that each of Romney’s opponents viewed as their key constituency remains fractured. And in the TIME/CNN poll, it’s Romney who picks up a plurality of self-described “born again” Christians, with 26%. He’s followed by Gingrich with 23% and Santorum with 20%.

Warren Tompkins, a South Carolina GOP strategist advising Romney, says the candidate’s opponents miscalculated by assuming they could wrangle the Evangelical movement’s fractious factions into a cohesive bloc. “There is not a Mike Huckabee in this race they can all rally behind,” Tompkins says. “This election has been dominated by the state of America’s finances and the need to set them straight. If you’re okay on the social issues, we’re going with the guy who can fix the mess.”

Without appearing to pander, Romney has labored to disarm critics by emphasizing his stable family life. At three campaign stops on Wednesday, Romney — standing next to his wife of 42 years, Ann — recounted the story of their courtship during high school, and Ann gamely warmed up the crowd with anecdotes about her five sons and their grandchildren. “She is one very attractive grandmother,” Mitt gushed as the pair, looking like middle-aged models from a J. Crew catalog, beamed out at a large crowd packed into an auditorium at Winthrop University in Rock Hill. Highlighting his marriage has been a hallmark of the charm offensive aimed at conservative Christians. “If you judge him on his character and the way he’s lived his life, his family, what can you quarrel with?” says Tompkins.

Romney has been shrewd about peppering his stump speech with I’m-one-of-you cues. To connect with South Carolinians, he beefs up his encomiums to the military, attacks the locally unpopular National Labor Relations Board at each stop, and even recites his favorite patriotic verses. These are side dishes, however, to the real red meat he flings at crowds desperate to dislodge Obama, whom Romney casts as a weak leader who “appeases” leaders abroad, undermines American’s clout in the world and “draws inspiration from the capitals of Europe.”

“It’s been a presidency that’s been as anti-investment, anti-growth and anti-jobs as we’ve ever seen,” Romney declares. By contrast, “I love America. I love the people of America. I love the patriotism of our people.” The people of South Carolina don’t seem to love Romney, particularly. But thanks to a well-honed campaign and a little luck, they are warming to the idea of him as their nominee.