Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's (R) campaign is attempting to fend off growing perceptions that it is writing off two of the three early primary states.
Romney has been clear that winning the New Hampshire primary is the linchpin of his 2012 campaign; he's spent more time courting first-in-the-nation primary voters than stumping in any other state.
"He obviously has the national appeal, the fundraising apparatus. He certainly would be a formidable candidate if he makes it through the primary. But I'm not sure he thinks he can win South Carolina," said Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who is hosting a series of town-hall meetings for Republican presidential contenders. Romney hasn't appeared at one of the town halls, but is working toward setting up a date with Scott.
"I think Romney can win South Carolina, he's just got to put in the effort," the freshman congressman said.
South Carolina Republicans, like their counterparts in Iowa, question Romney's commitment to their contest, which has decided the eventual Republican nominee since 1980, when the primary was first established.
"The way we structured it, by always having it the Saturday before Super Tuesday, you've got so much momentum and press — that's worth four or five points on Super Tuesday," said Van Hipp, a former chairman of the South Carolina GOP.
Romney's decision to skip a Labor Day forum organized by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a conservative kingmaker, only seemed to reaffirm Republicans' concerns. Romney will be in New Hampshire instead, though South Carolina officials and people close to Romney characterize the scheduling conflict as a genuine one. Romney's expected absence has already created a perception problem, however, and an opening for his rivals, most notably Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Perry's impressive start has been the main storyline this month of GOP the race for the White House. In contrast to the conventional wisdom about candidates like Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Ron Paul (R-Texas), Perry is considered electable against Obama. That, according to some in GOP circles, makes South Carolina important for Romney.
Romney finished fourth in the 2008 South Carolina GOP primary behind Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.).
An American Research Group poll, conducted in mid-July before Texas Gov. Rick Perry got in the race, put Romney as the leader in South Carolina — at 25 percent — followed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin at 16 percent, Bachmann at 13 percent and Florida businessman Herman Cain at 10 percent.
A Gallup poll this week found Perry polling well throughout the South, beating Romney 39-12 percent in the region, with other candidates trailing.
For its part, Romney's campaign disputes the notion that he's been MIA in the state, an accusation leveled by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) last week in an interview with The Hill. Romney is expected to travel to South Carolina next month, and Republicans on the ground praise David Raad, Romney's state director, for his political acumen.
"We're going to be in South Carolina enough to demonstrate that Mitt Romney is the best candidate to beat President Obama on jobs and the economy," said Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for Romney.
Still, the former Massachusetts governor's campaign has had to spend time attempting to shoot down suspicions that it's written off South Carolina and Iowa. It's also had to fight off confusion about its strategy of engaging more with voters after Labor Day.
"Stylistically, he's been running a national campaign," said Barry Wynn, a former chairman of the South Carolina GOP, who will participate in the DeMint forum. "There will be a point where that will work against him, and I'm not sure we're at that point, but we're quickly approaching that."
The former Massachusetts governor's comments Wednesday in New Hampshire, if nothing else, suggested that he's sticking to his game plan.
“Look, I'm following the strategy that I've had and that we've laid out from the very beginning," he said. "And the field is still fluid. There are going to be potentially other candidates."
In many ways, the Romney campaign strategy is two-fold: Don't panic when a candidate jumps in, and grind and outlast the competition.
Unlike other candidates in the field, Romney's campaign has the resources to make a strong push in all three of the early states, if it opts to do so.
Palin's anticipated entry into the campaign, for instance, could divide more deeply conservative parts of the primary electorate, and compel Romney to make a more aggressive play in places like Iowa, where he's made fewer visits than in 2007. He skipped this month's Ames straw poll.
Romney's assembled a campaign infrastructure in Iowa, and has worked to secure endorsements from local officials, in part to keep his campaign viable in the state. He sought to reassure voters during a trip there earlier this month.
"I imagine you’re going to see more of me from time to time between now and sometime early in January,” Romney said at a business roundtable. “I’d like to do darned well in those caucuses.”
"He's got to come and campaign aggressively. He made a mistake by not participating in the straw poll," Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) said after the event, which Bachmann won. "If he gets blown out in Iowa, I think he's in real trouble."
Others believe Romney can lose Iowa and win New Hampshire, making his fate determined by South Carolina.
Romney's campaign is cognizant that the map to the nomination isn't yet set, either. Florida and Arizona must still decide on whether to move up their primary dates, a move that would cost those states half their delegates to the 2012 Republican convention, and spur an earlier sequence of primary contests than is currently scheduled.
The campaign has its eyes on other contests, as well. Nevada's primary, a smaller affair for Republicans, is scheduled to take place between the New Hampshire and South Carolina events. Romney's made a number of visits to the state, where he's set to outline his jobs plan in a speech next month. And the state's Mormon population may well propel him to victory. Romney easily won Nevada caucus in 2008, capturing more than 50 percent of the vote.
He's also raised the money to weather a more drawn-out campaign, and Romney has spent time laying the groundwork for wins in states like Florida and Michigan.
Romney has raised the most money from California, New York, Florida and Texas, according to data on CQMoneyLine. The ex-governor has culled nearly $100,000 from New Hampshire, almost $39,000 from New Hampshire and just under $21,000 from South Carolina donors.
Romney finished second in both the 2008 Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary.