Tardy to the Party

Jamelle Bouie/The American Prospect

Rick Santorum campaigning in Greenville, South Carolina.

GREENVILLE, SOUTH CAROLINA—"This is the most important election of your lifetimes … maybe the most important since 1860,” Rick Santorum told diners enjoying Sunday dinner at Stax’s Original restaurant here. On its face, it seems like a throwaway line, but it represents the core of the candidate's argument to Republican voters. For Santorum, the goal is to stop Barack Obama from dragging the country into socialist oblivion by electing the most conservative candidate possible.

Naturally, the former Pennsylvania senator sees himself as that candidate. “America isn’t the greatest country because it has the strongest economy; America is a great country because it has those fundamental values,” Santorum said at a sports bar in Greenville earlier that day. “I am the only candidate in this race that will stand up for those values."

In South Carolina, Santorum is reprising the social conservative message that led him to a near victory in the Iowa caucuses. “Please pray for us—it’s a tough battle,” he said. “We are a great country because we have a strong foundation of faith and family.”

Greenville is the perfect place for this message. Located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, it is the second-most-populous city in the state and a right-wing stronghold. Not only is it home to Bob Jones University—a school known for its fundamentalist Christianity—the area remains a redoubt for Tea Party conservatives; in the tightly contested 2010 gubernatorial election, Republican Nikki Haley won the county by nearly 20 percentage points. Tea Party superstar Jim DeMint also served as its representative before he was elected to the Senate.

The people I spoke to at Santorum’s events were receptive to his message. “Rick definitely represents the conservative voters of South Carolina,” said Cary Galloway, a recent supporter who was leaning toward Gingrich until Iowa. His son, David, agreed: “He’s good on foreign policy; he’s good on values; he’s good on everything.”

Brandon Chambers, an associate pastor at a local church, expressed similar views. “I’ve been following Santorum since last spring, and I’ve liked his message of conservatism across all issues, not just fiscal,” he said. Chambers was also sympathetic to Rick Perry but wasn’t sure if the Texas governor could win it. “Perry—he’s a good guy, but I don’t think he has a chance,” he said. “He just reminds folks too much of George Bush.”

Indeed, the search for an electable conservative is what pushed conservative activist Gary Bauer to formally endorse Santorum while in Greenville. “I believe that Senator Santorum best represents the sort of Reagan Republicanism that I’ve defined my political life by. Small government, lower taxes, strong national defense, pro-family and pro-life—he articulates that whole message, not just one part of it,” Bauer said.

Bauer, who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination in 2000, believes that Santorum will make it through South Carolina and Florida with a strong campaign. “I think that Senator Santorum has the staying power that conservatives end up rallying around,” he said.

Despite Bauer's enthusiasm, the South Carolina primary is in less than two weeks, which doesn’t give the former senator much time to put together a campaign operation and convince conservatives he is capable of beating Barack Obama. What’s more, he has to play catch up with Mitt Romney, who leads in the polls with 37 percent support from likely South Carolina primary voters, according to the latest poll from CNN and Time magazine. This includes a substantial chunk of the conservative vote—Romney is backed by nearly a third of self-identified Christians, conservatives, and Tea Party voters.

Of course, by dint of his moderate background, Romney can’t rely on a message of pure conservatism to shore up his support among right-wing voters. But he does have the advantage of momentum, and in all likelihood the former Massachusetts governor will win Tuesday’s primary in New Hampshire by double digits. With two wins at his back, and the support of the Republican establishment, Romney would enter the Palmetto State with an aura of inevitability. If past primaries are any indication, that is the only thing he needs for victory.

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