Romney Ignores SC, Keeps Frontrunner Status
Cain, Gingrich, Perry all more involved in S.C. ground game
Gov. Mitt Romney and businessman Herman Cain sit atop recent primary polls in South Carolina, but that’s about all they have in common here.
Cain set up camp in South Carolina in October. His modest headquarters in West Columbia, in the same office Gov. Nikki Haley used during the Republican gubernatorial primary in 2010, is one of several footprints across the state.
Romney has one S.C. office, but little additional presence. Despite the state’s history of picking the eventual Republican nominee, Romney has focused on New Hampshire and other states, making only three stops in the Palmetto State thus far. His wife submitted his candidate filing form for him.
Cain held a 10-point lead on Romney a week ago, when he earned the support of 33 percent of pollsters. This week, Romney is back in front, narrowly over Cain, as nearly 70 percent of Republicans admit they don't know who they are supporting.
Even Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, who stayed afloat with 15 percent and 9 percent respectively in the Rasmussen polling, have established a significant ground presence. Gingrich, who has the state's largest pool of operatives, is set to open a Greenville headquarters on Saturday, before the first nationally televised debate of the primary season takes place at Wofford College in Spartanburg.
But fewer than 75 days before the Palmetto State's Jan. 21 primary, with Cain battling sexual harassment allegations and Romney continuing to run an error-free campaign, two questions remain: Can Romney succeed in South Carolina without courting South Carolinians in person?
And perhaps more importantly, does he need a strong performance in South Carolina to win the Republican nomination?
"I don't think he can win here," said Robert Oldendick, political science professor at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. "Given the likely GOP electorate, I don't know who is going to beat him, but the conservative front-running candidate that emerges out of New Hampshire and Iowa has the most likelihood for success in South Carolina."
Danielle Vinson, a political science professor at Furman University in Greenville, said Romney likely chose to use his resources elsewhere because South Carolina voters were not going to be his base even if he had a greater presence here.
“South Carolina has a large Tea Party population and a large evangelical population, neither of which have been particularly supportive of Romney in the past,” Vinson said.
“This was never a state that he was going to do fantastic in, so for him it just comes down to cost-benefit. Is he really going to get the votes if he puts in effort here or is he more likely to get votes in states that he’s likely to win big?”
Vinson said she couldn’t remember any other national frontrunners neglecting South Carolina like Romney has, but she said he still had time to make himself more of a presence.
“It’s always risky when a candidate decides not to spend much time in a key state, but he’s still got plenty of time to get on the ground in South Carolina,” Vinson said.
“His campaign has gotten so much attention nationally that it’s not like folks in South Carolina don’t know Mitt Romney.”
Vinson said Romney would likely adjust his South Carolina strategy based on the success of his opponents.
“If Cain and Perry start surging and improving in South Carolina, maybe Romney will spend more time here,” Vinson said. “If they don’t, he’ll probably take a decent showing here and move on.”
Though Oldendick and Vinson agreed that Romney could win the nomination without winning South Carolina, Oldendick said Romney could not afford a repeat of his fourth-place finish in the 2008 S.C. primary.
"He can't finish fourth," Oldendick said. "If he finishes a respectable second and we assume he wins New Hampshire and does well in Iowa, he'll be fine."
Ultimately, Oldendick said, South Carolina voters want a more conservative candidate than Romney to represent them. A conservative Myrtle Beach blogger is a leader in a movement to elect anyone besides Romney.
But if Romney stands the best chance to beat President Obama, that could be enough.
"The Republicans in this state want Obama out so bad that they would vote for Romney," Oldendick said. "He's not going to be damaged coming out of here if he finishes second, but again, there will be virtually no enthusiasm for him as a front-runner."
Dianne Cornett, a conservative from Columbia, summed up that sentiment.
"When it comes right down to it, we're going to vote for who we think is going to win," Cornett said. "Whoever it is, even if it's Mitt, we'll vote for them because we need to put in a conservative president."
Editor's Note: This version CORRECTS the original article which stated that Romney had no South Carolina office. In fact, he has one office in Columbia. The author regrets the error.