GOP officials say Romney must spend more time in South Carolina to win state

Every presidential candidate who has won the South Carolina Republican primary since it was established in 1980 has gone on to be the GOP nominee.

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Republican strategists say Romney has a tough haul in South Carolina, a conservative Southern state with many evangelical voters. But they say he has a real chance to win if he burns some shoe leather in the Palmetto State. 

“I don’t think he’s spending enough time in the state,” Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) told The Hill this week. “South Carolina is up for grabs, and if he doesn’t win, it’s because he’s made the decision not to spend time here.”

This is not the first time Scott has warned Romney to spend more time in South Carolina. The Tea Party freshman has publicly called Romney out at various times throughout the year. 

Romney’s campaign told The Hill that the former Massachusetts governor will be in Greenville on Friday and will also spend Saturday in the state. 

But he spent only 13 days in South Carolina in 2011 — roughly 25 percent as much time as he has spent in New Hampshire. 

This trip will be the first time in a month Romney has visited there. He skipped the first Republican debate of the cycle, held in Greenville in May, and initially said he would not attend a Labor Day forum hosted by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a major player who had endorsed Romney in the 2008 GOP primary. Romney later decided to attend.

“We’ll be in the state this weekend, and we’re going to be making more trips in the future,” said Romney spokesman Ryan Williams.

Romney has been competitive in South Carolina polls for most of the year. But a recent poll puts former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) at 41 percent and Romney a distant second, at 23 percent.

Gingrich doesn’t have much of a ground game in the state, though some say no candidate has a solid footing. 

“Nobody has a real organization … I don’t even know where to go get a bumper sticker from anybody,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has said he will not endorse a candidate. 

“I would urge Gov. Romney to run hard in South Carolina,” Graham said. “I don’t think anybody has put together much of an organization ... we can’t support people who ignore our state. I think Gov. Romney could win South Carolina if he won New Hampshire. That’s possible, but that would take effort.”

DeMint has decided not to endorse in the race, a position he has reiterated to The Hill, emphasizing his efforts to help the GOP win control of the Senate next year. 

“I’m not weighing in on any of the candidates right now,” he said. “Quite frankly, I think any of our candidates who are elected will do a good job if we can get a good Senate. If we can’t, it doesn’t matter who’s over there.”

Said J. Warren Tompkins, a senior South Carolina GOP operative who worked for Romney in 2008 but has not jumped aboard a campaign this time around, “It’s been a little while since [Romney] was last here.”

He argued that his former boss is making the right move by focusing heavily on New Hampshire, adding that modern campaigns have less to do with building infrastructure and early visits than message and momentum.

“The last couple of cycles have proven that messenger and message matter more. There’s more emphasis being placed on that than the traditional grassroots organizing,” he said.

Romney spent much of his campaign in South Carolina four years ago and was in a three-way tie for first place near the end of December 2007. He abandoned the state just weeks before the primary to focus his resources on Michigan and Florida. The former governor wound up finishing in fourth place with 15 percent of the vote.

Now Romney is seeking to lower expectations in Iowa, banking on a New Hampshire victory while preparing for a long nomination fight. 

Earlier this week, Romney told The Washington Post that he expects the New Hampshire primary to “be a close race.” 

Romney’s lead in New Hampshire — he had been up by 25-30 points in October — has dwindled to single digits. In 2008, Romney enjoyed large leads in New Hampshire before Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the eventual GOP nominee, came back and won the state. 

The Romney campaign says it has learned from the 2008 experience. 

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“We have a leaner and meaner campaign in South Carolina and in other states,” said Williams. “Nationally, our staff is smaller compared to previous campaigns. We’re running a different type of effort that allows the governor to be competitive in the early states and focus on the later states as well.”

Spending time in South Carolina poses risks for Romney. If he raises expectations and then loses, it would be seen as a waste of resources and hurt him in other states, most notably in the key early state of Florida.

But Scott said that if candidates expect to win, they must play hard: “You have to spend time where you want to win, especially in these early primary states where you get the momentum. You’ve got to make it to Super Tuesday, and you need wins to get there.”