Romney Hopes For A 'Great Day In South Carolina'

Almost all of the Republican presidential candidates trying to unseat front-runner Mitt Romney are in New Hampshire ahead of Tuesday's primary. But Romney is campaigning in South Carolina — the state that votes after New Hampshire.

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Presidential candidates had months to meet voters for this week's Iowa caucuses. Now they no longer have the luxury of time.

INSKEEP: Primaries come in rapid succession now. New Hampshire is Tuesday, and South Carolina comes just 11 days after that. And presidential front-runner Mitt Romney is skipping ahead.

NPR's Ari Shapiro followed along.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Clue number one that we're not in New Hampshire anymore: This rally in early January is being held outside in a historic state park surrounded by Palmetto trees and live oaks with Spanish moss hanging off their branches.

Clue number two: Instead hot coffee on the table for the guests, the drink of choice is sweet ice tea.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

GOVERNOR NIKKI HALEY: If it's a great day in South Carolina, let them hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

SHAPIRO: That's Governor Nikki Haley. Mitt Romney brought a couple of reinforcements to this rally, and she was one of them. One of her jobs was to reinforce Romney's Tea Party bona fides.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

HALEY: You know I'm a strong conservative.

SHAPIRO: That reassurance is not enough for local roofing contractor and Tea Party activist Casey Lombard.

CASEY LOMBARD: If he's nominated, I'll support him. I'm not supportive in the primary. He's too moderate for my taste.

SHAPIRO: Lombard doesn't understand the people who say they will settle for Mitt Romney over someone more conservative just because they believe Romney is more electable.

LOMBARD: I like the idea of having a very conservative candidate up against Obama, and then let America decide who we want to be.

SHAPIRO: One way Romney hopes to jump some of these hurdles is by appealing to South Carolina's deep military ties. When a military transport plane flew overhead interrupting his speech, Romney said...

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MITT ROMNEY: And by the way, that's - oh, isn't that? That's the sound of freedom right there. All right.

SHAPIRO: Romney's military experience is no deeper than his Tea Party experience. So he brought along someone else to help him on that front: war hero and former Republican presidential nominee, John McCain.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: After I lost, I slept like a baby.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MCCAIN: Sleep two hours, wake up and cry. Sleep two hours, wake up and cry.

SHAPIRO: And McCain played another role at this rally: attack dog. He went after Romney's new rival, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MCCAIN: Senator Santorum and I have a strong disagreement, a strong disagreement that he believed that earmark and pork barrel projects were good for America. I think it's wrong for America.

SHAPIRO: That amounted to return fire after a day full of attacks on Romney from most of the other candidates.

Santorum, for his part, urged New Hampshire voters not to settle for Romney. By taking on the attack dog role, McCain freed up Romney to aim all of his ammunition at President Obama.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

ROMNEY: You just saw, yesterday, the president appoint people to the National Labor Relations Board without the confirmation of the Senate as a political payback to his friends.

SHAPIRO: Romney called the president a crony capitalist.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

ROMNEY: The president said that he wants to favor green jobs. I think we misunderstood. What he wants to do is give jobs to people who give him the green.

SHAPIRO: This is the same approach Romney has taken from the beginning: rarely utter the names of his opponents. Let his campaign and his super PAC focus on those people. Instead, act as though he has already won the nomination and talk about President Obama nonstop.

The audience was just as polite as their Southern reputation would suggest. But even Romney's supporters were not so sure that the big endorsements will win people over.

MARY HELEN DANTSLER: I don't think so. John McCain, I'm not sure he's as popular here as he once was. Haley, whom I personally like, has very low polling numbers right now. So she might not help him, either.

SHAPIRO: But retired attorney Mary Helen Dantsler believes Romney may yet win South Carolina on his own merits.

DANTSLER: South Carolinians tend to be very socially conservative, but I think this time around, people are going to be more practical and realize the economy is the biggest issue, and Romney is a better candidate for the economy.

SHAPIRO: For all their social conservatism, South Carolinians do have a history of making pragmatic choices. Republicans have picked the eventual winner of the nomination in every primary here since Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

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