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Mitt Romney aims to pull off an ‘Iowa’ in South Carolina

Long-shot candidate Rick Santorum’s stunning near-win in the Iowa caucuses got the big headlines, but the victorious Mitt Romney also came out of the Hawkeye State with momentum.

Long-shot candidate Rick Santorum‘s stunning near-win in the Iowa caucuses got the big headlines, but the victorious Mitt Romney also came out of the Hawkeye State with momentum.

Mr. Romney, too, had a bit of a surge at the end in Iowa, coming up from about 15 percent in the polls in early December to win with almost 25 percent. He hardly campaigned in Iowa, instead relying on the network he had built during his presidential campaign four years ago, and he kept expectations low until the end. Polls showing him as most able to beat President Obama in November made him strong among late deciders.

As the moderate former governor of Massachusetts, Romney was never a natural fit for Iowa Republicans, who skew more conservative and evangelical than Republicans as a whole. New Hampshire is home turf for Romney, and he is expected to win comfortably there next Tuesday.

But the next contest — South Carolina, on Jan. 21 — will be a challenge. Once again, Romney will face a GOP electorate that skews conservative and evangelical. Thus, he is taking detours for two appearances there, one Thursday afternoon, then Friday morning, before heading back to friendly New Hampshire.

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Thursday morning, Romney released a new ad in South Carolina attacking Mr. Obama for going around Congress and appointing three new members to the National Labor Relations Board.

“You’re seeing a president adopt policies which affect our economy based not upon what’s right for the American worker but instead what’s right for their politics,” Romney said in the ad.

The White House accuses Romney of opposing protections to workers. The National Labor Relations Board came under heavy criticism in South Carolina for challenging Boeing Co. over its decision to build the 787 Dreamliner there.

Romney’s goal in South Carolina: to pull off another “Iowa” — that is, win a plurality victory, or at least come close, amid a crowd of conservatives. Texas Gov. Rick Perry‘s decision to stay in the race after finishing fifth in Iowa may help Romney, as it helps keep the conservative pie divided.

South Carolina, in fact, could be an easier sell for Romney than Iowa. South Carolina has a primary, which produces higher turnout and doesn’t favor just the most committed (presumably conservative) Republicans, as is the case in the Iowa caucuses.

And if South Carolina Republican primary voters are anything like they were four years ago, they won’t be as conservative as Iowa GOP caucusgoers. In 2008, the exit poll showed 68 percent of South Carolina Republicans self-identified as conservative. In Tuesday’s entrance poll in Iowa, 83 percent of caucusgoers self-identified as conservative.

In both states, about 6 in 10 Republican voters are evangelical. That works against Romney, whose Mormon faith makes some evangelicals uncomfortable. But in a cycle where the economy is the No. 1 issue and electability overrides all else for some voters, Romney is still competitive among religious conservatives.

Palmetto State Republicans pride themselves in being the “deciders” in competitive primaries. Since the first South Carolina Republican primary in 1980, the winner has always gone on to win the nomination. But analysts warn against presuming it will always be thus; there have been only six such contests. Florida Republicans, who vote on Jan. 31, will provide a better test of party sentiment, as Florida is a bigger, more diverse state. Romney is already airing ads there.

In the end, a loss in South Carolina for Romney may be merely a bump in the road on the way to the nomination. And if he manages to pull off a victory there, he’s well-positioned to lock up the nomination early.