The opening days of the South Carolina primary race have percolated with economic-themed populist pitches from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and ex-Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, as the three compete to capture the state's blue-collar vote.
Targeting that demographic is a plausible gambit in the South’s first primary. But the trio might get in one another’s way as they vie for those voters. And in a party still dominated by free-market ideology, their message risks alienating key parts of the party’s base.
Gingrich castigated the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department during a campaign stop on Friday, arguing that people have a right to be angry over big financial institutions getting aid while average Americans didn’t get help with their mortgages. Gingrich spun his argument as a pro-capitalist message, but at its core, it’s meant to stir resentment at Wall Street.
“I think when you have crony capitalism of politicians taking care of their friends, that’s not free enterprise, that’s just backdoor socialism in which the rich get all the money and the rest of us gets left -- gets left with all the debt,” he said.
Perry, meanwhile, has slammed the elites in Washington and New York between his pitches to make Congress part-time.
“The bigger issue here ... it’s just this corrupt relationship between Washington and Wall Street,” Perry told conservative talk-radio host Laura Ingraham on Thursday. “Americans have lost confidence in both of these institutions, and that’s what these conversations are about.”
Santorum’s message, by contrast, is rooted more directly in his personal history. The former senator, a native of a Western Pennsylvania steel town, has been touting his immigrant grandfather’s hardscrabble journey to build a better life for his family in America -– most memorably in his speech after his second-place Iowa finish.
He took that message on the road in South Carolina, telling a crowd on Saturday in Greenville that his background makes him more electable than front-runner Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who spent many years as a venture capitalist.
“You want to win this election? Then we’ve got to go to the states where you win the election and it’s Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, North Carolina, Missouri, Wisconsin,” Santorum said. “How do you win elections as a Republican in these states? You do it by getting Reagan Democrats to vote for you. I respect Mitt Romney’s career in business, but the grandson of a coal miner who grew up in public housing in a steel town in Western Pennsylvania and ... who’s record is a track record of working in those blue collar communities has a much better chance of winning those states than an executive from Bain Capital.”
Each of the three candidates is still vying to emerge as the credible conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, and a second-place finish in South Carolina would solidify that opportunity. And Romney still has been struggling to attract less well-off voters. In New Hampshire, his stronghold, he attracted 41 percent of voters who made more than $50,000, but only 31 percent who made less than that amount.
“Here’s a guy who went on stage and wanted to make a $10,000 bet once with Rick Perry,” said John Brabender, a senior strategist for the Santorum campaign, referring to Romney's debate gaffe last month. “This is a guy voters have trouble relating to.”
But the strategy of targeting blue-collar voters has its pitfalls.
For Gingrich and Perry, their attempts to separate Romney from working-class voters have included sharp attacks on his background at Bain Capital, a Boston-based venture-capital firm. But their rhetoric has drawn heavy return fire from many influential conservatives who consider it tantamount to an attack on capitalism.
“I don't like that at all, because I was in business a long time as a consultant to a lot of businesses,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, one of the most powerful conservative voices in the state, during a radio interview with Ingraham this week. He added, “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 Democrats a lot of fodder.”
The Gingrich and Perry criticism of Romney’s background has been a “total disaster,” said Jim Dyke, a South Carolina-based Republican consultant who is unaffiliated with any of the campaigns. He praised Santorum for steering clear of such rhetoric and agreed that the backlash from the rest of the party could overwhelm blue-collar support.
“As Rick Santorum believes, there are plenty of things to go after in Mitt Romney’s record, but this is not one of them,” Dyke said.
There’s also a question of how successful the candidates can be with messages that mirror one another –- particularly as they seek to topple a suddenly formidable candidate like Romney. “There’s no doubt there’s concern,” Brabender said.
Splitting the blue-collar vote would do little to help their own candidacies, but it might boost Romney to yet another win. It’s a scenario that has benefited the former Massachusetts governor throughout the early GOP contests, particularly when conservatives splitting the vote in Iowa handed him a victory despite his getting just 25 percent of the vote.
“Maybe Romney doesn’t win as big in South Carolina as he did in New Hampshire, but a ‘W’ is a ‘W,’ ” said Chip Felkel, a Republican strategist in South Carolina who is not affiliated with any campaign. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a touchdown or a field goal.”
Rebecca Kaplan and Sarah Huisenga contributed contributed to this article.