Divide and conquer: Romney has strong path to victory in South Carolina

With his resounding victory in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney became the first Republican to win both the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, and he is now strongly positioned to win South Carolina for no Republican presidential candidate, since 1980, who has lost both Iowa and New Hampshire, has won South Carolina.

Since 1980, South Carolina has picked Republican presidential nominees, as the winner of the Palmetto State’s primary has gone on to become the eventual GOP nominee in every election cycle.

A CNN/ORC poll released last Thursday had Romney in the lead in South Carolina with 37 percent. Santorum was in second PLACE with 19 percent, followed by Gingrich with 18 percent.

In a We Ask America poll, released Tuesday, of likely South Carolina primary voters, Romney led with 26 percent. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich ranked second with 21 percent, followed by former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum with 13 percent, Rep. Ron Paul with 8 percent, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry with five percent, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman with four percent. In that poll, 22 percent of the respondents were still undecided.

Given these early poll numbers from South Carolina, the worst case scenario for Romney out of New Hampshire would have been a strong second place showing by former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman combined with either Gingrich or Rick Santorum pulling ahead of the other to get momentum as the anti-Romney alternative as the GOP presidential primary heads below the Mason-Dixon line for South Carolina’s presidential primary on Jan. 21. Such an outcome would have strengthened Huntsman, who could have taken votes away from Romney in South Carolina, a state that is, on paper, not the most friendly to him.

Both scenarios did not happen.

After waging his whole campaign on New Hampshire, Huntsman finished a disappointing third behind Ron Paul. And though Huntsman vowed to campaign in South Carolina — in Charleston and Columbia — on Wednesday, the viability of his candidacy and his rationale for staying in the race have now been called into question and those questions and doubts will likely intensify in the days ahead.

On the conservative side of the bracket, Gingrich and Santorum, as they were in a virtual tie for fourth place, symbolically gave their election night speeches at the same time, crowding out the other as they are likely going to do in South Carolina, to the benefit of Romney.

Gingrich, in his election night speech, said South Carolina would be a “daunting challenge,” but asked voters in South Carolina to imagine what the alternative would be, in an obvious reference to Romney.

The challenge for an anti-Romney candidate to emerge out of South Carolina, in Gingrich’s words, will be made more daunting by Perry’s candidacy.

Perry, who has been campaigning in South Carolina while his rivals were in the Granite State, has the potential to be to Romney what Fred Thompson was to John McCain in 2008–an insurance policy that siphons votes away from the more conservative candidates, making the path to victory clearer for the more moderate candidate.

Perry, whose candidacy is staked on winning South Carolina, saw the jumbled outcome among the non-Romney candidates in New Hampshire as an opportunity to cast himself as the chief anti-Romney rival.

“Tonight’s results in New Hampshire show the race for [the] ‘conservative alternative’ to Mitt Romney remains wide open,” Perry said in a statement. “I believe being the only non-establishment outsider in the race, the proven fiscal and social conservative and proven job creator will win the day in South Carolina.

“South Carolina is the next stop. I have a head start here, and it’s friendly territory for a Texas governor and veteran with solid outsider credentials, the nation’s best record of job creation, and solid fiscal, social and Tea Party conservatism,” Perry said.

Perry, along with Gingrich, attacked Romney’s association Bain Capital, the private equity firm Romney led, in recent days. At a campaign stop in South Carolina on Tuesday, Perry associated Bain with “vulture capitalism.” But many have interpreted Gingrich’s and Perry’s criticisms of Bain as an attack on venture capital and private equity and not just an attack on one specific firm, which will make it more difficult, in the long run, to consolidate the anti-Romney vote.

Further complicating matters for those vying to be the last anti-Romney standing is Paul, whose non-aggression pact with Romney allows Paul to plod along and collect votes and delegates because Paul has a high floor of support, even if his ceiling is not as high as those of the other candidates.

Hammering home his message of preserving liberty, auditing the Federal Reserve, fiscal austerity, and engaging in a more non-interventionist foreign policy, Paul, in his New Hampshire election night speech, told his audience that he is leading a movement that is “dangerous to the status quo.”

Ironically, the libertarian movement Paul spearheads may preserve the status quo, at least for this cycle,  by making it easier for Romney to get elected.

On Mark Levin’s radio show on Tuesday, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, the most influential Republican in the state, handicapped the Palmetto State’s primary.

“I think Romney is going to win here,” DeMint said.

And if that happens, history says Romney will be the 2012 Republican nominee for president.