Romney Works To Shore Up Support In S.C.

With just days to go before the South Carolina primary, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney campaigned in Florence, S.C., Tuesday.

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Mitt Romney and his Republican rivals crisscrossed South Carolina today. The four men not named Romney are running out of time to make the case that one of them should be the GOP standard bearer in November. South Carolina hosts the first Southern primary on Saturday. And NPR's Scott Horsley reports that if the former Massachusetts governor wins there, it could all but seal the nomination for him.

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SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Mitt Romney held an early morning rally in Florence, South Carolina. Aides had curtained off half the Civic Center ballroom, but the reduced space still seemed too large for the crowd that showed up. Unfazed, Romney stuck to his usual script, looking past the primary to the November race against President Obama. He paints that race in the starkest of terms, calling it a battle for the soul of America.

MITT ROMNEY: I am so distressed as I watch our president try and replace ambition with envy, and poison the American spirit with class warfare. We are one nation under God.

HORSLEY: Mathen Thomas(ph), who runs a marketing company, hadn't known exactly what to expect from the former Massachusetts governor. He came away impressed by what he heard from Romney.

MATHEN THOMAS: More freedom, less government, I'm definitely interested in, and Romney seems like he has a plan to shrink the deficit and he doesn't want to shrink our military. So all those things, as an entrepreneur, are important to me.

HORSLEY: With just four days to go before the primary, though, Thomas is not completely sold. After listening to Romney, he headed across town to where Newt Gingrich's supporters had gathered in a crowded art gallery.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing) Only in America.

HORSLEY: During a televised debate last night, Fox News analyst Juan Williams had accused Gingrich of belittling poor people by saying they need paychecks rather than food stamps. The debate audience took Gingrich's side, giving the former House speaker a standing ovation. Gingrich was still glowing this morning.

NEWT GINGRICH: We have been fed so much baloney by our liberal elites, and we are so sick of people who don't get it that I think people are just grateful to have somebody with the courage to tell the truth.

HORSLEY: South Carolina voters seem to enjoy a good political fight, and Gingrich's aggressive style has won him a lot of fans, including this man.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What I've been looking for in my candidate is fire in the belly. We've got to bloody Obama's nose.

GINGRICH: Well, let me say, first of all, I don't want to argue with you about the analogy. I don't want to bloody his nose. I want to knock him out.

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HORSLEY: But Gingrich won't get that opportunity if Romney wins the GOP nomination. He warned that if South Carolina helps choose a moderate as the Republican nominee, it'll be that much harder to topple Mr. Obama. Gingrich said the only way to avoid that is for conservative voters in the state to unite behind him, not split their votes among the other contenders.

GINGRICH: Any vote for Santorum or Perry, in effect, is a vote to allow Romney to become the nominee because we've got to bring conservatives together in order to stop him.

HORSLEY: Rick Santorum, meanwhile, is arguing he should be the conservative choice. So far, there's little evidence that conservatives are banding together, and that leaves a big opening for Romney. Gingrich today criticized Romney for failing to release his tax returns, and for his tortured answer in the debate last night that he would probably do so at some point in the future. Romney acknowledged today his effective tax rate is well below that of many middle class families.

ROMNEY: What's the effective rate I've been paying? It's probably closer to the 15 percent rate than anything because my last 10 years, I've - my income comes overwhelmingly from investments made in the past rather than ordinary income.

HORSLEY: Investment income is taxed at a lower rate. President Obama argues millionaires like Romney should pay at least the same tax rate as those in the middle class, a debate we're likely to hear more of. Romney now says he will release his 2011 tax return once it's completed sometime in April. Of course by that time the primary contest may be effectively over.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Florence, South Carolina.

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