AIKEN, S.C. — Wednesday is the first day of the rest of Mitt Romney's life. Ever since announcing he would make a second run for the Republican presidential nomination, the 2008 runner-up has followed a campaign strategy of winning the New Hampshire primary and building from there.
Now, Romney heads to a state where some Christian conservatives express deep skepticism, if not downright antipathy, toward his candidacy, and where his rivals plan a barrage of negative assaults that might have made legendary South Carolina attack man Lee Atwater blush.
And yet Romney leads the most recent surveys of Palmetto State voters, a reflection of his luck this year—and due in no small part to the shortcomings of the other candidates converging on South Carolina this week.
With most of the vote counted in New Hampshire, Romney was winning 39 percent and crushing his opponents. Texas Rep. Ron Paul was 15 points behind in second place, followed by Jon Huntsman in third.
But Romney's celebration will be tempered by the reality of the coming 10 days. His opponents view South Carolina as their last chance to stop the former Massachusetts governor, who on Tuesday became the first nonincumbent Republican presidential candidate to win both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.
To that end, Romney's opponents have pledged to blanket South Carolina with advertisements filled with negative messages about Romney's tenure as governor, his time leading Bain Capital, and his flexibility on issues near and dear to conservative hearts.
A super PAC that backs former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has reserved $3.4 million in television advertising to broadcast a nearly half-hour video blasting Romney's time at Bain. Gingrich's campaign and former Sen. Rick Santorum's campaign will each run saturation-level advertisements of their own, virtually none of them positive.
Romney warned his opponents on Tuesday night of the perils of going negative about his business background. "President Obama wants to put free enterprise on trial, and in recent days, we've seen some desperate Republicans join forces with him," he told his cheering supporters in Manchester. "This is such a mistake for our party and our nation."
But South Carolina is a state with a rich tradition of negative television commercials and skulduggery. None of Romney's rivals have so far shown the slightest compunction about launching their broadsides. Santorum, Gingrich, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry have made clear they won't even bother hiding behind surrogates in making the case that Romney is little more than a political chameleon, willing to say or do anything to get elected.
Perry, who has stumped through South Carolina for most of the last week since coming in a disappointing fifth in Iowa, made that case on Tuesday night. Perry "is a conservative of conviction, not of convenience. He is not going to change just to win your vote," his wife, Anita Perry, told Republicans at a local party meeting here. "With Rick Perry, you will not have to wonder whether the president you get is similar to the candidate you see."
That's a message that resonates with some voters. "Mitt Romney can't go against Obama. He may as well be a Democrat," said Phillip Stoker, a transportation consultant who stopped by a barbecue joint in Leesville to see Perry speak.
But Romney projected a deserved sense of optimism on Tuesday night in his victory speech. After all, Romney has won a greater share of the vote among those who said the economy was their most important issue in both Iowa and New Hampshire than he has of the electorate as a whole. In South Carolina, voters told pollsters at Clemson University in December that they cared most about the federal deficit, an issue that exit polls show has favored Romney and Paul, and then about jobs and the economy.
Most significantly, Romney heads to South Carolina with a sizable lead in public polling. A CNN/Time magazine poll conducted Jan. 4-5 showed Romney leading with 37 percent, nearly double the support Santorum and Gingrich held.
And that fact, in the end, is Romney's greatest strength: The antipathy that most conservative voters feel for Romney is tempered by the fact that there is no clear alternative. Gingrich, Santorum, and Perry all have enough money to compete in South Carolina, and none has an overwhelming claim to the allegiances of Palmetto conservatives.
Tuesday's results in New Hampshire went beyond merely ratifying Romney's status as overwhelming front-runner. The Granite State also delivered what could prove to be a knockout blow to Huntsman, the one candidate who could carve out some more moderate Republicans otherwise predisposed toward Romney. Huntsman finished in third-place, at just 16.7 percent of the vote despite spending the bulk of his time and holding more than 165 campaign events in New Hampshire.
Late Tuesday, Huntsman vowed to go on. "Where we stand right now is a solid, comfortable, confident position. And we go south from here," he told CNN, perhaps more prophetically than intended.
Romney's general election success will hinge on his ability to add to the Republican Party's base. His success in South Carolina rests on his opponents' ability to divide conservatives among each other—at which they have proven more than adept.
Beth Reinhard contributed. contributed to this article.