Awkward Introductions

CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA—Mitt Romney has never been a great retail campaigner, and he can’t seem to hold a major event without some awkwardness. “I’m here with two beautiful women,” he said in a little pre-speech banter at a rally Thursday, gesturing toward Ann Romney and Cindy McCain. But then he remembered that Governor Nikki Haley was there (standing next to him) and declared, to a few laughs, that “there are a lot of beautiful women in this audience.”

As per usual, Romney attacked the administration’s handling of Iran, offered a promise to get the economy in order, and described President Obama as a “nice man” who is just “in over his head.” Of course, Romney tailored his rhetoric to the audience—he began his speech with an attack on the National Labor Relations Board for its decision to halt the construction of a Boeing plant in the state, which has been a huge issue for South Carolina Republicans.

He also doubled down on the “crony capitalist” charge, accusing Obama of using government to “pick winners and losers.” Referencing the administration’s decision to support the Solyndra company with loans, Romney offered this indictment: “President Obama said that he wanted to give money to those who create jobs, but it turns out that he wants to give jobs to those who give him money.”

For the most part, the attendees were in Romney’s camp. Joan Gelynn, a former resident of Massachusetts, said that she was “definitely decided” about her support for Romney. “I like the whole man,” she said, “I like his serenity, demeanor, and moral character.” When I asked if she had any doubts about his conservatism, she dismissed the idea that a nominee had to meet some test of ideological purity. “I think conservative views are very important, but he needs to address the whole country, not just a small minority,” she said.

Likewise, a youngish guy named Paul—who came with his wife and two young kids—explained that he is heartened by Romney’s history of moderation, especially when it came to health care. “I own a business, and the reality of purchasing health care for my employees is intimidating,” he said. “I’m happy that there’s a movement to work on health care and repair what President Obama passed, instead of trying to scrap it.”

That’s not to say that all of the attendees were on the moderate side of the Republican spectrum. Tom and Anne Sullivan, staunch conservatives, were convinced of Romney’s fealty to conservative ideology. “He’s really not that moderate,” said Anne, who was sure to note that she shared a first name with Mrs. Romney. “He’s not for gay marriage, he’s against abortion, and he’s pro-Israel. What more do you want?” Both Anne and Tom also expressed their enthusiasm for former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who has been on the upswing since his near victory in the Iowa caucuses. “I’d love to see Santorum catch up,” Tom said. “I don’t think that he should be the nominee, but he would be great as VP.”

There were a few disruptions—at one point, a Ron Paul supporter shouted over the crowd to interrupt Romney—but on the whole, Romney sailed through the event without incident. Indeed, the event underscores one important fact about South Carolina Republicans: As much as the state is known for its right-wing conservatism, it has a large community of pragmatic, pro-business Republicans who have been very influential in past presidential primaries. Put another way, we shouldn’t forget that South Carolina is home to Jim DeMint and Lindsay Graham.

The bulk of Romney’s support is in that community, and while they aren’t a majority of South Carolina Republicans, their numbers are less important than the fact that they are a stable constituency for the former Massachusetts governor. In a contest where the conservative vote is divided, they are the basis for a Romney win in the Palmetto State.

Photo credit: Jamelle Bouie