In South Carolina, Romney's rivals try to take him down
Following Mitt Romney's historic consecutive first-place finishes in both Iowa and New Hampshire, South Carolina presents a last-chance opportunity for his rivals to present themselves convincingly as the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney - a candidate who has managed to establish himself as the frontrunner for the nomination even while many Republicans appear underwhelmed by the prospect of a Romney candidacy.
(In a recent CBS News Poll, Romney led the Republican field with 19 percent support - but his lead was matched by 19 percent of Republican primary voters who wanted "someone else.")
Newt Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond presented his candidate's goal this week in clear-cut terms: "The goal is to get rid of Romney," he said, according to the Washington Post. "Our goal is to remove Mitt Romney from the competitive ranks."
It's a fitting goal for South Carolina. The state is known for its down-and-dirty politics, and has been home to some of the more notorious - and spurious - whisper campaigns over the years. In 2000, the Palmetto state was the birthplace of a nasty and untrue rumor about Sen. John McCain's adopted Bangladeshi daughter.
So far, Romney's rivals have largely focused on his record as CEO of investment firm Bain Capital, which his opponents argue was responsible for laying off thousands of Americans in the name of corporate greed.
The pro-Gingrich PAC Winning Our Future is spending $3.4 million to air a 28-minute short film depicting Romney as "more ruthless than Wall Street" for his tenure at Bain.
Texas Governor Rick Perry, too, has gone after Romney hard for participating in what he's started calling "vulture capitalism."
Perry, who at last count was polling at just five percent in South Carolina, is hoping to catch a second wind in a state with a strong evangelical community. The Texas Governor, who has touted his record of creating jobs in Texas as a major tenet of his campaign, is also hoping his message will resonate with voters given the state's 9.9 percent unemployment rate.
"I understand the difference between venture capital and vulture capitalism. We need to have more venture capitalism going on in America, and less vulture capitalism," Perry said in Lexington on Wednesday. "The idea that you come in and you destroy people's lives, the idea that you come in just to make a quick profit, tear these companies apart - I understand, restricting, I understand these types of things. But the idea that we can't criticize someone for these get rich quick schemes is not appropriate from my perspective."
In light of a recent Republican backlash against these criticisms, however - some argue that the anti-Bain tack is essentially a Democratic argument against the private sector - Gingrich in particular has expanded the breadth of his attacks. The campaign recently released an ad that characterizes Romney as "pro-abortion," as well as a web video that basically serves as a Romney gaffe highlight reel.
Gingrich at the moment appears best-positioned candidate to take on Romney in South Carolina, but the relatively long 10-day interim before voters next hit the polls offers all of the candidates a chance to shake things up.
Both Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman are hoping to leverage the momentum of their recent successes (in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively) into a new wave of support down South.
"We feel like we've got a real shot in the arm, some wind at our back," Santorum said Wednesday night on Fox News. "We're able to run a full boat of campaign ads down here, which is really the first time we've really run a real campaign, if you will, with both radio and TV ads, as well as the work that I'm doing."
"It's been that kind of energy and enthusiasm ever since we've gotten to South Carolina," he continued. "We'd love to win here. We think we have a shot at winning here. But you know, a top two finish would be absolutely super."
The extent to which Romney's competitors will be able to derail him, of course, remains to be seen. The candidate has the backing of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, and S.C. Sen. Jim DeMint, while not endorsing a candidate, has defended him against the charges of flip-flopping on abortion, telling conservative radio host Laura Ingraham on Wednesday that "this idea of condemning people who have changed their minds is not a good idea for any of us."
Moreover, "Restore our Future," the pro-Romney PAC credited with blunting Gingrich's surge in Iowa through a series of negative ads, is already at work in both South Carolina and Florida.
A new ad by the PAC targets Gingrich's attacks on Romney as "desperate" before going on to hit him for 1990s-era ethics charges, his consultancy with Freddie Mac, and co-sponsoring a bill with Nancy Pelosi that "would have given $60 million a year to a U.N. program supporting China's brutal one-child policy."
(Gingrich, in turn, has threatened to sue television stations that continue to air the ad.)
Either way, with nine days left before South Carolinians head to the polls, there's still plenty of room for movement. And according to Gingrich, the anti-Romney movement is already kicking into gear.
"I think everybody who's been here has felt a shift in mood, a shift in crowd size, the shift in media coverage," Gingrich told reporters in New Hampshire earlier this week. "You know, Romney came here as a victorious person, and I think he is clearly limping at this point."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article referred to rumors about John McCain taking place during his 2008 White House run. They occurred during his run for the presidency in 2000 against then Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
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