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Former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich addresses the audience during a GOP town hall meeting, Wednesday, January 11, 2012, in Rock Hill, South Carolina, with his wife, Callista Gingrich by his side. (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/MCT)
Thursday, January 12, 2012

SC beckoning GOP hopefuls

CONCORD – New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary is over, which means for the Republican presidential contenders, it’s off to the Palmetto State.

Mitt Romney’s resounding Granite State victory sets up the former Massachusetts governor well for the next primary contest in South Carolina on Jan. 21. If this primary follows like the past several before it, Romney’s lead in the South Carolina polls later this week will shoot up thanks to the momentum granted in his neighboring state.

“I’ve got some tweet enemies now when I said after the New Hampshire results were in that the race was effectively over,” said Michael Dennehy, a veteran GOP campaign operative who masterminded John McCain’s two New Hampshire primary victories.

“You’ve got to give Gov. Romney and his campaign all the credit for mounting the only real statewide organizational effort that paid huge dividends. Now the conservatives are scrambling and their egos won’t allow them to get behind only one alternative,” Dennehy said.

Some New Hampshire primary veterans questioned whether the first-in-the-nation event’s standing took a hit in 2012, given Romney’s constant lead and a palpable drop in voter enthusiasm.

Claira Monier is a longtime GOP activist who backed former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

“I’m really worried. Grass-roots politics didn’t drive this election; the debates did and that’s not good for New Hampshire,” Monier said.

“You should have to come in here and earn it, and this looks ominous for our future. I’m glad I was involved in this one because I don’t know what the next one is going to look like.”

Rich Killion is a GOP media consultant who worked for Romney in 2008, but was neutral in this race after his candidate, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, dropped out.

“We saw a lot of late movement, a fair amount of energy and enthusiasm at the end. The only strange thing about this one was that voters broke neatly as they had before the stretch drive,” Killion said. “Romney picked up more than his share of late deciders; Jon Huntsman made a little run and those who didn’t do enough grass-roots politicking, like Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, got punished for it. I think the New Hampshire primary and its voters held up pretty well.”

Now the battle goes south, and at least on paper, South Carolina does not have the same kind of center-right electorate that fit so nicely for Romney.

Romney, who owns a house is Wolfeboro, campaigned here for five years, used his PAC to dole out thousands in campaign checks to win New Hampshire GOP friends and built an organization without peer.

Santorum, former House Speaker Gingrich and Texas Gov. Perry all believe South Carolina is the locale where Romney could face the most stiff resistance. They are banking on this bright Red State, where the politics are bare-knuckled.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman also hopped an overnight plane to try to trade on some momentum he’s been given from a solid third-place New Hampshire finish.

“If Mitt Romney thinks the race is over then I think he’s in for a big surprise when he gets to South Carolina,” Perry said Wednesday.

Gingrich hosted the first post-New Hampshire event in South Carolina: a town hall meeting where he called the state a “’must win” for him.

“It is good to be home in the South,” Gingrich said at the forum in Rock Hill, after a red-eye charter flight from New Hampshire.

“I believe the next 10 days are as important as any 10 days we’ve seen in modern American politics,” Gingrich said.

Unlike in Iowa and New Hampshire, Gingrich has the financial horsepower behind him, thanks to a $5 million check to his Super PAC from Sheldon Adelson, a casino billionaire magnate and longtime personal friend.

The Super PAC is spending most of it right away with plans for a massive $3.4 million ad buy attacking Romney’s record as a free market capitalist while he ran Boston-based Bain Capital.

Already, $1.4 million in Gingrich Super PAC ad spots have been bought in South Carolina.

Perry dubbed Romney’s employer as a “vulture” firm that swooped down on distressed companies and feasted on their carcasses.

Romney said today he wasn’t surprised President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign would attack him as a profiteer, but referred to Gingrich and Perry as “desperate Republicans” lobbing attacks that don’t sit well with their voters.

“I understand President Obama is going to put free enterprise on trial,” Romney said Wednesday morning. “Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich are going to be witnesses for the prosecution.”

Romney said the Bain Capital assault already failed in New Hampshire.

Unlike New Hampshire, South Carolina is a closed primary where only Republicans take part. This could be devastating to Huntsman, who finished fifth among Republicans in the New Hampshire vote, but rose to third thanks to running neck and neck with Romney among independents.

“I don’t know where Huntsman goes from here. Certainly, New Hampshire gave him a nice lift, which would have been even better had he been able to settle on a consistent message,” Dennehy said. “To me, he’s now a man without a country.”

Romney campaign spokesman and ex-Gov. John H. Sununu couldn’t hide frustration that Huntsman remains in the race, but does not consider him a lasting threat. In exit polling, Huntsman challenged Romney for the vote of New Hampshire independents.

“Why is Huntsman in the race?” Sununu said. “I guess he’s got money to waste.”

Another thorn in Romney’s side is Texas congressman Ron Paul, who has a passionate following that gave him a second-place finish in New Hampshire, even above his performance in pre-primary polling.

The Romney camp does not view Paul as someone who has deep pockets of support, but not sufficient anywhere to win a significant state.

Meanwhile, Paul has to balance his desire to aggressively try to put Romney on the defensive with the future ambitions of his son, Rand, the Kentucky senator who looks like he might someday mull a White House run of his own.

Now Romney goes from a state with one of the lowest level of church-going voters to South Carolina, where 46 percent of GOP regulars self-identify as evangelical Christians.

This could provide a second chance opening to Santorum, who stumbled badly to fifth here after his near victory in Iowa.

Anti-abortion priority voters were the only group of New Hampshire voters that Romney lost and Santorum swept the field with more than 40 percent support among them.

Santorum campaign manager Michael Biundo had said his candidate knew there wasn’t enough time or resources to fully capitalize on Iowa’s showing here. That’s why $1 million in TV ad buys for Santorum were not made in New Hampshire, but placed this week in South Carolina.

“We’re gearing up for the long haul,” Biundo said. “We saved our money for South Carolina. We’re obviously going to put a lot more money into media than we did up here.”

Finally, what makes this the last stand for Romney’s opponents is that South Carolina is the last affordable early state in the 2012 primary calendar.

The race goes after South Carolina to cash-heavy Florida on Jan. 31 and then on to Super Tuesday in mid-February, when numerous states spread across the country all vote on the same day.

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com. Also check out Landrigan (@KLandrigan) on Twitter and don’t forget The Telegraph’s new, interactive live feed at www.nashuatelegraph.com/topics/livefeed.