For Romney, a newfound Southern comfort

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, picks up a child as he campaigns at The Hall at Senate's End, in Columbia, S.C., Jan. 11, 2012.
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, picks up a child as he campaigns at The Hall at Senateâ??s End, in Columbia, S.C., Jan. 11, 2012.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaigns in Columbia, S.C.
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- In his frequent visits here during his 2008 presidential run, Mitt Romney often repeated the mantra that he was a "Yankee governor" with "Southern values."

Back then, most South Carolina Republicans didn't buy it.

Just four days after his come-from-behind victory in Michigan -- the state where he was born and raised -- Romney finished an inglorious fourth in the Palmetto State.

No matter how many backyard barbeques he attended or backs he slapped, Romney just did not seem to fit in. And it was not just because of his religion.

"Everybody thinks it was the Mormon thing, but it wasn't," said Wesley Donehue, a South Carolina consultant and member of Romney's 2008 team. "It was a combination of Mormon, northeastern governor, flip-flopper, and the fact that he's just so good-looking. So it was a combination of all four of those things that really made people here take a step back and say, 'I really don't know about this guy. I don't think I can trust him.' "

Four years later, South Carolina appears to have warmed to Romney considerably.

For one thing, the perception of inevitability among GOP voters who are most interested in seeing President Obama defeated may outweigh any cultural barriers still in Romney's path following his victories in Iowa and New Hampshire. (He has a solid lead in the state in the RCP Average.)

But momentum isn't the only thing on Romney's side.

For a host of other reasons, the former Massachusetts governor appears to be a much better fit for South Carolina than he was four years ago.

According to Donehue, who is neutral in the race after a stint working for Michele Bachmann, the reason for Romney's revitalized hopes here has more to do with a comfort level South Carolina Republicans have developed with him over time.

"Voters here have had four years to get to know him, so I think he's really started to bridge that trust gap because he's not new anymore," Donehue said.

Along his path to victory in 2008, John McCain benefited in a similar way in the state that had nearly launched him toward the GOP nomination in 2000.

But Romney nonetheless faces at least one additional difficulty that the Arizona senator never had to surmount: The well-documented suspicion of Mormonism among many evangelicals here.

Still, Romney has already proven in Iowa that the religion challenge is one he can overcome -- albeit with the help of a divided field of socially conservative Christians.

And the face of South Carolina politics in 2011 is unrecognizable from what it was a generation ago.

Gov. Nikki Haley, Romney's highest profile surrogate in South Carolina, told RCP in New Hampshire over the weekend that her own victory in 2010 served as proof of the state's acceptance of candidates from nontraditional backgrounds.

"It's a non-issue for me because South Carolina just elected a 38-year-old Indian female," Haley said. "There are no cultural issues in South Carolina."

Though such an assertion might be a stretch, Haley's broader point about the state's openness to candidates who would have had a tougher time in the past is salient.

South Carolina's upstate region remains in the clasp of the Bible Belt's buckle, but it is also home to major corporations.

Meanwhile, the coastal region and central area of the state surrounding the capital of Columbia -- a diverse college town with a metropolitan population topping 750,000 -- was where McCain racked up large margins over Mike Huckabee in 2008 and could prove fertile ground for Romney.

"I've probably beaten this dead horse myself, but I wish those from outside of South Carolina would realize this state is a whole lot more than rock solid Bob Jones [University]," said South Carolina Republican strategist Chip Felkel, who resides in Greenville, home of the prominent Christian sanctuary of higher learning. "You've got a ton of people who've moved into South Carolina who are Republican voters, but they're not activist conservatives, they're Main Street conservatives."

When asked about challenges in the state, Romney's advisers are quick to note that the issues at the center of the GOP nominating fight are far more in Romney's wheelhouse than they were last time, when the candidate was outgunned by a war hero when it came to his knowledge of foreign affairs and outshone on social issues by Huckabee, a former Baptist minister.

In 2012, however, with South Carolina's manufacturing base in decline and the unemployment rate at 9.9 percent, voters here likely will be even more fixated on the economy than were the GOP electorates in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the jobless rates stand at 5.7 percent and 5.2 percent, respectively.

"You look at the people of South Carolina right now, their main anxiety is that the economy doesn't seem to be living up to its potential," said senior Romney strategist Kevin Madden. "If you continue to focus on those issues, voters of all different stripes in the South Carolina primary electorate are going to gravitate toward the governor's message."

Unlike in early 2008, when the Romney campaign realized it had little shot at victory and pulled out its staff and robust advertising budget from South Carolina 10 days before the primary, there is no turning back this time in a state that has been won by the eventual Republican nominee in every election since 1980.

Romney may never be mistaken for a backslapping Southern pol, but the state has rewarded more than its share of visitors hailing from far outside Dixie in past presidential campaigns.

A victory might all but wrap up the nomination for Romney, but despite the improved climate for him here, his team has reason to prepare for -- and spin -- a respectable showing that falls short of victory.

"We're under no illusion about how difficult it will be for us to win there this year, but we're going to go there and fight for every vote," said Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom.

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.