COLUMBIA, South Carolina (Reuters) - Republican presidential contenders brought buckets of cash and sharp rhetoric to South Carolina on Wednesday for an intense 10-day battle that may determine whether anyone can stop front-runner Mitt Romney’s march to the party’s nomination.
Despite fierce attacks from his rivals, the former Massachusetts governor captured New Hampshire’s primary 16 percentage points ahead of the rest of the field on Tuesday to go two-for-two at the start of the Republican nomination race after his narrow victory in Iowa’s caucuses a week earlier.
The New Hampshire victory felt “like Christmas Day,” Romney told reporters as his plane left the state for South Carolina.
A Romney victory in the January 21 South Carolina primary, the next in a series of state-by-state contests, could extinguish his rivals’ hopes of keeping him from becoming the nominee to take on Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 6 general election.
Romney’s campaign added to the other contenders’ worries by announcing he had raised $24 million in the last three months of 2011, just hours after his victory in New Hampshire. That haul will almost certainly far outstrip the war chests of any of the party’s other presidential contenders.
Romney has led in polls in the southern state, but could face a tougher time convincing its many religious conservatives and those hit hard by the economic downturn that he is their best bet to defeat Obama.
He finished toward the back of the pack in the state’s primary in 2008, when Arizona Senator John McCain became the Republican nominee. “With regards to South Carolina, last time I came in fourth. Our team recognizes this is going to be a challenge,” Romney said.
In his narrow win in Iowa, Romney’s Mormon faith was a stumbling block for some evangelical Christians, who also make up a large percentage of the South Carolina electorate.
Trying desperately to stop Romney, his rivals have blasted him as a heartless corporate raider who enjoyed cutting jobs while amassing a fortune as a private equity executive, and have assailed him as not being a true conservative.
“The issue is ultimately going to be between a Reagan conservative and a Massachusetts moderate, and I think as his record is better known, he will grow weaker and weaker very fast,” Newt Gingrich, who is pinning his campaign hopes on South Carolina, told reporters in Rock Hill.
In New Hampshire, Romney won 39 percent of the vote, outpacing Ron Paul, a U.S. congressman from Texas known for libertarian views who came in second with 23 percent. He was followed by Jon Huntsman, a moderate former U.S. ambassador to China and former governor of Utah who had focused his campaign on New Hampshire. Huntsman won 17 percent.
Gingrich and Texas Governor Rick Perry have lashed out at Romney for his record at Bain Capital - an unusual debate in the business-friendly Republican Party. Both men are from southern states, which they hope will help win over South Carolinians.
Influential conservatives have warned that the attacks could undermine the party’s free-market ideals.
“I certainly don’t like Republicans criticizing one of our own and sounding like Democrats,” Republican South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, an outspoken conservative, said on Mark Levin’s radio show. A favorite of the anti-Washington Tea Party movement, DeMint said he would not endorse a candidate in the nomination race.
The Republican infighting has also cheered Obama’s campaign, although it has left some voters cold.
South Carolina furniture store owner Dede Ruff, 43, said the attacks on Romney had turned her off Gingrich and Perry. “They’re attacking capitalism. It’s not conservative at all,” she said.
Gingrich allies plan to spend $3.4 million on ads in South Carolina criticizing Romney’s business record and a group backing his campaign has produced a dramatic 27-minute video bashing Romney on the issue. With South Carolina’s 9.9 percent jobless rate above the national average, Perry has pointed to businesses in the state that were shuttered by Romney’s company, which he accused of “vulture capitalism”.
“The issue is venture capitalism is about creating jobs. And this vulture capitalism is about, you know, making money regardless of whether people lose their jobs or not,” Perry said on Fox News.
Flush with victory, Romney said he was proud of his business record. He dismissed the attacks as good practice for what is expected to be a bruising general election fight against Obama.
“Look, it’s - it’s going to be, you know, all guns blazing in my direction and I’ve got broad shoulders. I can handle that. I‘m not worried about it,” he said on CBS’ “This Morning.”
Romney became the first Republican who is not an incumbent president to win both Iowa and New Hampshire. He may now find it easier to convince skeptics that he is the strongest Republican to take on Obama, despite qualms about moderate policies he pursued as Massachusetts governor.
The winner of the South Carolina primary has become the nominee in every presidential election since 1980. South Carolina is also the only one of the early-voting states that is reliably Republican in presidential elections.
The stumbling U.S. economy has been the central issue of the 2012 campaign. Romney argues that his experience as head of Bain, where he made a personal fortune estimated at some $250 million, helps make him the best candidate.
He took aim at Obama in his New Hampshire victory speech, which aides said would be the tone for the rest of his campaign.
“We know that the future of this country is better than 8 or 9 percent unemployment. It is better than $15 trillion in debt. It is better than the misguided policies and broken promises of the last three years - and the failed leadership of one man,” Romney said.
Additional reporting by John Whitesides in Rock Hill, S.C., Colleen Jenkins in Columbia, S.C., and Patricia Zengerle and Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Cynthia Osterman