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Romney’s test in South Carolina

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South Carolina goes to the polls Saturday January 21, in what may be a turning point in the Republican primary process. Some local factors are going to affect the vote, but general trends and personalities will play a more significant role, particularly with regards to Mitt Romney, the current frontrunner.

Economic issues are likely to be more important in South Carolina than they were in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first states to have cast their ballots. South Carolina’s unemployment rate is 9.9%, compared to 5.2% in New Hampshire and 5.7% in Iowa. This could lead Republican voters to pay more attention to the candidates’ positions – and perceived expertise – on economic policy, rather than on their standing on faith-based issues. For example, Rick Santorum’s plan to eliminate income taxes for manufacturing companies may become an important element of debate in local meetings. However, in general, Republican candidates have not yet articulated precise proposals on the economy, despite the fact that, even in New Hampshire, 60% of primary voters affirmed in exit polls that the economy was their highest priority.

Secondly, South Carolina is a conservative state, but not as homogenous as expected from a social and political standpoint. Indeed, a significant number of residents along the state’s coast hail from northeastern states, such as New York and New Jersey; they have retired there to enjoy the milder weather. They may have a moderate orientation, and are more likely to support Romney than other right-wing candidates. In contrast, the mountainous northwest of the state has an overwhelming majority of social conservatives. It is not by accident that Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry are focusing their campaign in this part of the state; they are fighting over the votes of people who attach greater importance to faith-based issues, such as abortion. Romney too, who supported abortion rights in the 1994 Senate elections and then changed sides in the following years, is now stressing his current pro-life position in South Carolina.

A third local element that could influence the vote in South Carolina is the support of the GOP establishment and whether it will fall the way of one candidate or another. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley has recently endorsed Romney. Haley is the first woman to serve as governor in the state, and the second governor in American history of Indian origin (the other one being Bobby Jindal of Louisiana). When she won election in 2010, she was also the youngest governor in the United States: just 39 years old. Jim DeMint – a very conservative senator from South Carolina with Tea Party affiliations – has also praised Mitt Romney, although he has not officially endorsed him so far. It seems that a large majority of the Republican establishment at local and federal levels has already chosen Mitt Romney as the GOP nominee. For example, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who, trailing badly in the polls, announced Sunday night that he would withdraw from the race, is expected to endorse Romney in the coming days. However, that does not mean that many high-profile Republicans have been openly campaigning for him. Furthermore, some of the south’s most prominent Republican leaders – including Florida Senator Marco Rubio – have yet to take sides. As a result, the impact the choices of the GOP establishment might have on Republican voters in South Carolina is still questionable.

Beyond local factors, general trends are going to influence the upcoming primary. One of the most important of these is the momentum Romney is currently enjoying, after two consecutive victories in Iowa and New Hampshire (regardless of the very narrow margin he secured in the former). This is a key factor in the perceptions of both the general public and of primary voters. Romney’s momentum may help his perceived “electability” as a presidential candidate. It may well lead Republicans to vote for him, in the conviction that he is perhaps the most likely to beat Barack Obama in the general elections.

Another relevant factor in the GOP primary race so far is the lack of unity among social conservatives. In the GOP’s “anti-Romney” camp, Santorum and Gingrich have done relatively well in both Iowa and New Hampshire, while Perry continues to have a hold on a small portion of the conservative electorate. As for Texas Congressman Ron Paul, he has exceeded expectations in the first two primaries, but seems to have reached his ceiling of support, having mobilized libertarian voters, yet failing to win over the rest of the Republican electorate. Over the weekend, a gathering of evangelical leaders that took place in Texas crowned Rick Santorum as their candidate. The question is whether this move on the part of the religious right comes too late to really have an impact on the South Carolina vote. In the meantime, it is Newt Gingrich who has been surging in the polls. According to a survey released last Friday by American Research Group, Romney is ahead with 29% of support but Gingrich is close second with 25%, a four-point lead for Romney that is within the poll’s margin of error. If one between Santorum, Gingrich and Perry leaves the race after South Carolina, this situation may change; so far, however, the divisions in the social conservative camp only serve Romney. In fact, Romney could well gain between one fifth and one third of votes in the South Carolina primary should the anti-Romney majority be split among the three right-wing candidates.

The advantage enjoyed by the frontrunner is one of the reasons why the Republican debate has focused more and more on Romney’s professional background and personality recently. Anti-Romney groups have launched a campaign on his past work for the private equity firm Bain Capital, for example. Bain Capital raises outside funds to buy distressed businesses, then restructures them and tries to sell them for a profit. Romney has been criticized by his fellow Republicans for chasing profits at the expense of jobs during his time with the firm, an accusation that portrays him as a job-destructor and not the job-creator he claims to be. Gingrich, for one, has made aggressive statements on the issue, and Perry called the kind of venture capitalism practiced by entities such as Bain Capital “vulture capitalism”. Romney’s line of defense on the issue was quite weak at the beginning (he even made a gaffe about liking “to be able to fire people”), and this weakness has been exploited by his opponents. Only Ron Paul took Romney’s side, by defending the free market and the process of “creative destruction,” an argument that may very well convince a significant number of business-friendly Republicans. On the whole, it is not clear whether this debate will influence voters in South Carolina. What is sure is that Romney will be more and more under scrutiny – and under attack – in the weeks to come.