Just a day after his big win in Michigan, Mitt Romney ceded South Carolina to his rivals.
“This is a state I’d expect that Sen. [John] McCain has pretty well wrapped up,” Romney told reporters at the Sun City Hilton Head Retirement Center in Bluffton. “It would be an enormous surprise if he were unable to win here.”
Romney’s South Carolina strategy amounts to being politically half-pregnant. He doesn’t want to raise expectations in a state he likely can’t win, so he’s dashing off to Nevada midday Thursday to compete in the lightly contested caucuses there Saturday. But at the same time, he doesn’t want to offend his supporters in South Carolina.
Polls show Romney standing in solid third place in South Carolina, taking anywhere from 13 percent to 17 percent of the vote. But in Bluffton, Romney put himself in fourth place, noting that “even a strong fourth is better than what some of the other guys saw in Michigan last night.”
This tricky expectations game has left his top advisers here in an awkward position. They need to defend their candidate’s decision without downplaying the importance of their own state, a fiercely proud place where locals frequently tout their first-in-the-South primary status and tradition of deciding the GOP nominee.
“It’s always been the gateway, but you know what — the calendar has changed, the cycle is changing,” Warren Tompkins, Romney’s South Carolina strategist and a veteran consultant, said after a rally in Charleston.
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“South Carolina is important, but it may end up that Florida is the gateway this time.”
Reminded that he was talking about his own native state, Tompkins argued that he was “not diminishing the primary.”
“We’re going to fight in it,” he promised. But, he reiterated, “the calendar has changed.”
Romney also pledged to fight Wednesday — for new South Carolina jobs.
“You've seen it here, in furniture. You've seen the textile industry, where Washington watched, saw the jobs go and go," he said in Bluffton to a group of retirees.
"I'm not willing to declare defeat on any industry where we can be competitive. I'm going to fight for every job," Romney said.
But his hopeful economic message may resonate less than it did in struggling Michigan, whose 7.4 percent unemployment rate is far above the 5.0 percent national average and the 5.9 percent South Carolina rate.
As such, Romney isn’t counting on much Mitt-mentum in the Palmetto State, which aides describe as both “[Mike] Huckabee territory” and “McCain territory.”
The opt-out strategy, as practiced by all the candidates, sounds a bit like a Zen koan: If the candidate expects a loss, does it still hurt his campaign?
Romney hopes the answer is no. Romney pulled his ads out of South Carolina before the Michigan primary. He planned to go back on the air Wednesday.
“I frankly don’t think it’s wise at this stage to be trying to advertise in all states at all times,” said Romney. “If someone else is spending massively, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to put a few drops in that bucket.”
This is the same Mitt Romney who has spent tens of millions of his own money on advertising, who was — at one point — airing ads in the first five GOP contests at a total clip of more than $2 million a week.
Romney explains his decision to downplay the South Carolina primary as a simple numbers game. Nevada has 34 delegates up for grabs, while South Carolina has 24.
“I’m playing to get the nomination. I’m not looking for gold stars on my forehead like I was in first grade,&rdqo; said Romney. “I’m looking to rack up the delegates I need to win the nomination.”
Romney is currently leading the delegate race, but his advantage isn’t much of an edge: 975 delegates are up for grabs on Feb. 5.
Waiting for the delayed Romney caravan to arrive in Charleston on Wednesday, Sen. Jim DeMint, an early Romney supporter, conceded that he would like to have all of Romney’s attention.
“I’d like to have him here,” DeMint said.
But DeMint said Romney’s move to go off the air last week and to downplay expectations was a matter of necessity that he supported.
“No one would have even considered him still in the race if he didn’t win Michigan,” DeMint said. “We told him that.”
Romney’s opt-out strategy also reflects a realistic view of the South Carolina landscape. The population plays more into the natural strengths of McCain and Huckabee than it does for Romney.
So it was no surprise to witness each of Romney’s advisers lowering expectations furiously Wednesday.
“If he does reasonably well here, it will be considered a victory,” DeMint said. “I don’t think he has to win for it to have been a good primary for him.”
Tompkins said that a Romney victory would amount to a “lightning strike.”
Romney state director Terry Sullivan went even further, saying that not only could they survive a third-place finish but that a bronze medal would be “a good thing.”
Romney’s eleventh-hour effort to diminish a South Carolina loss is reminiscent of Rudy Giuliani’s attempt to pooh-pooh his poor finish in New Hampshire.
In both cases, it amounts to erasing a bit of recent history, acting as though they never spent millions in the two states before they realized that they had little chance to win.
Until last week, Romney had been on the air here nonstop since Labor Day. He’s had a paid staff presence going back to June of 2006. And he and members of his family have visited the state dozens of times in the past year and a half.
Romney aides contend that they, like other campaigns, should get a pass for not being competitive in some states.
Naturally, his rivals aren’t buying it — and they are trying to make the most of it.
“If a Republican nominee can’t compete in the South, say hello to President Clinton or Obama,” quipped Mark Salter, senior adviser to McCain.
Lisa Lerer reported from Bluffton, S.C.; Jonathan Martin reported from Charleston, S.C.