GOP Candidates Settle Into South Carolina

This week brought a change of scenery for Republican presidential candidates from New Hampshire to South Carolina, where voters will cast ballots on Saturday. Host Rachel Martin talks with NPR's Mara Liasson about the political state of the play in the GOP nominating contest.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

This week brought a change of scenery for Republican presidential candidates from New Hampshire to South Carolina, where voters will cast ballots on Saturday. But the front-runner is still the same, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. And this week, Romney is trying to make the hard sell to South Carolina's more socially conservative electorate. Here's a radio ad his campaign is running in the state:

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL RADIO AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Today, Christian conservatives are supporting Mitt Romney because he shares their values: The sanctity of life, the sacredness of marriage and the importance of the family.

MARTIN: But a group of Christian conservatives that met in Texas this weekend said they would throw their collective support behind one of Romney's rivals, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. And some of the former governor's Republican competitors are trying to slam his record in the private sector.

For more on the Republican nomination race, we are joined now by NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: I want to start with the news out of Texas that a Christian conservative group has decided to endorse Rick Santorum. Was this a surprise?

LIASSON: Well, we know that conservatives - especially evangelicals - have been trying to unite around one candidate. They've had a hard time doing that. They learned their lesson from 2008 where they failed to unite around Mike Huckabee in time. And he wasn't able to do well in South Carolina because the conservative vote was split. So this time, they finally came together at this late date to get behind Santorum.

I think it's significant because now they have coalesced behind one candidate. But I also think it might be too late. There's only a week left before South Carolina votes. Rick Santorum has very little time to put together the kind of national organization and raise the kind of money he would need to really become the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney.

So, I think it might have limited utility but it is important. And we'll now see what kind of clout these evangelicals leaders have, as they try to send a message to evangelical voters in South Carolina. And there are plenty of them to unite behind Santorum.

MARTIN: But, as we mentioned, Mitt Romney has been under some pressure. He was criticized this week for his work as CEO of Bain Capital. And the super PAC that supports Newt Gingrich even bought a half-an-hour movie that attacks Romney for his work at Bain.

Do you have any sense, Mara, as to how Republican voters are responding to these kinds of attacks?

LIASSON: Well, it's very unclear. Romney's polling in South Carolina has been dropping in the last couple of days. It's hard to know if it's because of the Bain attacks, although that's a pretty good guess.

We also know there's been a backlash. A lot of conservative leaders have rallied to Romney's side, even people like Rush Limbaugh, who don't think Romney is conservative enough, to say that this kind of an attack is out of bounds. The Club for Growth called it disgusting. They've criticized Newt Gingrich in particular for going after the free enterprise system.

Gingrich himself has been a little bit haphazard in his attacks, saying at one point he wanted the 30-minute ad to be taken down - or the 30-minute movie. But that super PAC says it's going not going to take it down.

And the big question is when we have these two debates in South Carolina this coming week, how will Romney defend himself? Some of Romney's supporters say it's good these attacks are coming now; it can inoculate him because President Obama certainly will use similar attacks in the fall. He can get his response out now.

But the interesting thing about all of this - you mentioned Perry, you mentioned Gingrich - Rick Santorum, who got that big nod this weekend from the evangelicals, has not participated in these attacks. He has steered clear of them and even criticized them.

MARTIN: But quickly then, Mara, Romney has won over the voters in Iowa and now, New Hampshire. Can Rick Santorum or another, really, beat him in South Carolina?

LIASSON: We don't know yet. Even if Rick Santorum beat him in South Carolina, Romney is still the favorite. He still has the money and the organization to go on in states like Florida, where it takes a tremendous amount of money to win.

MARTIN: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks as always.

LIASSON: Thank you, Rachel.

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