South Carolina: A conservative time for choosing

The good ship Mitt Romney has charted a course for inevitability, but first it’s going to have to navigate around some sharp rocks and shallow water in South Carolina.  Evangelical organizations have not been eager to climb on board, partially because of lingering doubts about Romney’s Mormon religion, but also because certain crucial issues tend to slide around on deck when the S. S. Romney makes sudden course corrections. 

As the Boston Globe summarizes:

While some Baptist churches continue to liken Mormonism to a cult, four years later and with two wins under his belt, Romney is viewed skeptically by Christian conservatives more because of his record than his religion.

But unlike Iowa, where evangelical Christians ultimately coalesced around Rick Santorum and gave Romney a run for his money, South Carolina’s religious right remains divided as the Jan. 21 primary nears. Christian conservatives distrust him for his shifts on social issues – especially abortion – and look askance at his religion, but, with support split among several contenders, their impact on the race is limited. Seeking to counter that trend in South Carolina and nationally, 150 Christian conservative and activist leaders meeting in Texas yesterday endorsed Santorum.

That endorsement may, however, have come too late to heal the divisions among South Carolina’s religious conservatives and stop Romney. “This is the perfect storm for Mitt Romney in a state like South Carolina,’’ said Linda Abrams, a political science and history professor at the famed Christian fundamentalist Bob Jones University in Greenville.

Still, Romney’s relatively recent conversion to social conservatism – he now opposes abortion rights and is no longer a defender of gay rights – tamps down his appeal to the religious right much more than his Mormon faith.

The Globe went on to interview a number of evangelical voters in South Carolina, and they all felt that Romney’s positions on social issues were far more of a concern than his Mormon religion.  Despite their reservations, however, these voters haven’t united around an alternative to Romney.  He’s been making direct appeals to them, and has become their Number Three choice with 13 percent support, according to an American Research Group poll taken on Friday. 

Gingrich is the evangelicals’ favorite, with 40 percent support, but enough values voters support Perry, Santorum, and Paul to keep Romney in the lead overall, with 29 percent support to closest rival Newt Gingrich’s 25 percent.  Rick Santorum, who might have been expected to do very well with this demographic, pulls only 12 percent from evangelicals, and has dropped a hair-raising 17 points overall since his Iowa caucus photo-finish victory alongside Romney.

Ironically, given the intensity of the attacks against his private-sector career over the past week, the Boston Globe suggests that “Romney’s business background – largely viewed as a plus in a state with nearly 10 percent unemployment – has also helped to make his religion a footnote this time around, even among evangelical Christians.”

South Carolina is a moment of choosing for conservatives in general, not just values voters.  Romney’s huge lead in Florida means that unless he gets some really bad news in South Carolina this week, his lead in the primaries is about to become all but prohibitive.  Even a very narrow win in South Carolina might not be enough to put a hole beneath the S.S. Romney’s waterline. 

A vigorous rally against Romney is therefore crucial, if South Carolina conservatives want to change the course of the GOP presidential race.  So far, there are few signs of vigor against Romney.  Influential conservative Senator and Tea Party hero Jim DeMint, for example, seems to have been prodded into defending Romney against the furious Bain Capital assault, without quite seeing his way to issuing an outright endorsement.  (He was more openly supportive of Romney’s 2008 presidential bid.) 

As an article in USA Today related, DeMint told radio host Laura Ingraham that he disliked Rick Perry’s characterization of Bain Capital as an example of “vulture capitalism”:

I don’t like that at all because I was in business a long time as a consultant to a lot of businesses.  Everyone knows that over half of new businesses fail and that’s part of the process of failing and getting up and succeeding.  And I really think that to have a few Republicans in this race beginning to talk about how bad it is to fire people, certainly we don’t like that, but it really gives the Democrats a lot of fodder… We need to understand the principles of our party.

DeMint also told Ingraham that he thought these were “the same type of ads they ran against me when I first ran for Congress,” because “I was not, supposedly, the conservative in the race.”  After the New Hampshire primary, DeMint publicly mused that he expected Romney to win South Carolina as well.  On the other hand, he told ABC News on Friday that Romney nees to work on his “empathy” and better explain the layoffs he made while managing Bain acquisitions, or else he’s “going to see this again if he’s the nominee in the general election.”

DeMint’s attitude reflects the overall feeling among conservatives: they’re not quite comfortable with Romney, and they have some specific complaints they don’t feel he has adequately addressed, but they’re not unhappy enough to unite behind one of the other candidates to stop him.  None of the other candidates, in turn, has done a convincing job of presenting himself as a truly viable alternative who could carry the anti-Romney banner all the way to the GOP convention.

Writing in the New York Post, John Podhoretz suggests that Mitt Romney, the CEO of Front Runner, Inc., has done a good job of managing his liabilities and preventing them from overwhelming his assets:

Why are conservatives lining up behind a politician of whom Rush Limbaugh has said flatly: “Mitt Romney is not a conservative” — a sentiment echoed by Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and 2008 Iowa caucuses winner?

The answer lies in a misunderstanding of the “conservative” voter. It’s a mistake to think that voters who describe themselves as “conservative” think about politics and react to politicians the same as people who are professionally or avocationally conservative.

Those of us who are professionally or avocationally conservative get into the weeds when it comes to politicians’ view. So for us, it isn’t enough that Mitt Romney now says he is pro-life; we know that in 1994 he ran for senator in Massachusetts as an unapologetic abortion supporter. He says flatly that he changed his mind, but people for whom the pro-life cause is central find such a record untrustworthy.

But that isn’t true of the conservative voter. That voter listens to Romney, and she hears Romney say he’s pro-life. That’s more than likely enough for her if the issue is important to her.

Podhoretz concludes, “The conservative voter? She doesn’t care all that much about purity. Turns out she wants a winner.”  As far as the Republican primary is concerned, if South Carolina conservatives don’t unite and do some serious damage to him, that’s what Mitt Romney is likely to be