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Romney Faces High Hurdle in South Carolina

Romney Faces High Hurdle in South Carolina

By Scott Conroy - April 11, 2011

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- He may be the presumed national frontrunner, but when he launches his all-but-certain presidential campaign, Mitt Romney figures to be a heavy underdog in the historically decisive South Carolina presidential primary.

During his 2008 run, Romney competed fiercely to win the first-in-the-South primary state, which has voted for the eventual GOP nominee in every contest since 1980. But after more than a year of pouring significant time and money into the state, Romney pulled out his South Carolina resources with 10 days to go before primary day in order to focus on friendlier ground in Michigan and Nevada.

This time around, his South Carolina prospects are not looking much better.

"He finished fourth here last time, and if he hasn't really done a lot of groundwork, it might be an uphill battle," said South Carolina State Rep. Nathan Ballentine, who endorsed Romney's last campaign. "So maybe you focus on New Hampshire and then head up to Nevada and Florida -- things like that."

Ballentine, who is one of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley's closest allies in the state legislature, described himself as a "loyal guy" who was inclined to endorse Romney again but had not yet made up his mind. Ballentine was frank in his assessment that the former Massachusetts governor, who tried to convince South Carolinians throughout 2007 that he was a "Yankee governor" with "southern values," might again have a difficult time connecting with voters here.

"You've got to be able to walk into a gas station, a restaurant, or a bar and be able to shake hands and communicate," Ballentine said. "It's street level politics, if you will. He's just very polished. He's an individual that's successful, but at the same time, I don't know how much he wants to sit around and hang out."

Whether it was the campaign stop in Greenville where he was photographed in an awkward embrace with a trio of Hooters girls whom he mistakenly believed to be Clemson cheerleaders or the infamous public scuffle in Columbia when he got in a heated public argument with an Associated Press reporter, it seemed like Romney could never catch a break here during the 2008 campaign.

And as other likely Republican candidates have begun ramping up their South Carolina political operations, Romney's old South Carolina team has not remained intact.

Romney's 2008 state director Terry Sullivan took a job earlier this year with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and CNN reported that Romney's former top South Carolina consultant Warren Tompkins has signed on to work for Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's near-certain White House bid.

Perhaps even more worrying for Romney, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint -- whose endorsement is likely to carry more weight than anyone else's among the state's conservative voters -- wavered when asked if he would commit to backing the former Massachusetts governor again, as he did in 2008.

And although Romney was an early and potent supporter of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley's gubernatorial run, he wasn't alone, and few Republicans in the state expect Haley to feel compelled to return the favor.

"I find it very unlikely -- given the level of support Gov. Haley got from other presidential contenders -- that she'd support Romney this time," said South Carolina GOP consultant Wesley Donehue, a key player in Romney's 2008 bid, who is weighing offers from other likely candidates. "Haley Barbour directed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Nikki Haley, and since it was a close race, you could say that Nikki Haley would not be governor of South Carolina without Haley Barbour."

Even though he is well-known among South Carolina's Republican voters, Romney finished in fourth and fifth place in the two GOP county straw polls that have been conducted in the state so far this year and has not set foot in South Carolina in 2011.

Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom would not reveal whether Romney intends to participate in the first presidential debate scheduled to take place on May 5 in Greenville, but several South Carolina Republicans told RCP that they expected him to be a no-show, as he continues to delay the start of his official campaign.

Fehrnstrom noted that Romney visited South Carolina several times last year and plans to stump here again. "He did a book signing at The Citadel, appeared at events for Governor Nikki Haley and Congressman [Mick] Mulvaney, and his PAC supported lots of local candidates with donations to their campaigns," Fehrnstrom told RCP. "If Mitt Romney runs for president, he'll be back."

Fehrnstrom's assurances and the reality of South Carolina's clout would appear to ensure that Romney will not skip the state altogether. Still, supporters of his likely rivals have privately expressed a common belief that Romney will attempt to downplay the state.

"It seems to me he has made a very calculated decision that it's not worth the money and the resources and what it takes -- it's just too big a risk for him," said one South Carolina operative who has signed on to work for a likely Romney rival.

With the Iowa caucuses also shaping up to be a daunting prospect for Romney, the New Englander is likely to face a near must-win scenario in the first primary state of New Hampshire before the political calendar moves to other more hospitable terrain.

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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