CHARLESTON, S.C. â€” Time is running out for anyone to stop Mitt Romney from winning the South Carolina Republican primary Saturday, perhaps the last chance to keep him from running away with the partyâ€™s presidential nomination.
Newt Gingrich hopes that his aggressive, crowd-pleasing debate performance Monday night â€” always the oxygen for his campaign â€” will feed a surge of last-minute support.
Rick Santorum is hoping that the late backing of national social conservatives will turn into a grass-roots uprising for him in the Palmetto State.
But Romney leads polls by double-digit margins. And heâ€™s using his well-financed campaign to build a firewall in the stateâ€™s most conservative counties to guard against voters surging late to a challenger, as they did to Mike Huckabee in 2008.
The likely result? The former Massachusetts governor could easily see his lead erode, but his competitors remain divided, they still face an onslaught of Romney campaign tools, and they may not be able to deny him a clear win.
â€œThereâ€™s no way that the opposition against Romney can form up,â€ said David Woodard, a Clemson University political scientist whoâ€™s also a Republican consultant.
The former Massachusetts governor leads with the support of about 32 percent of likely South
Carolina voters, according to an average of recent public surveys by RealClearPolitics.com.
Gingrich, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, has about 22 percent. Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, has about 14 percent, as does U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. Gov. Rick Perry trails far behind in last place. All those polls were taken before Monday nightâ€™s debate, at which Romney came under attack and sometimes was shaken.
Gingrich delivered a commanding performance, at one point bringing the Republican audience to its feet cheering with his defiant statement that America kills its enemies.
Eager to build on the momentum, Gingrich pressed South Carolina voters Tuesday to rally behind him as the only one who can stop Romney.
â€œIf you vote for Sen. Santorum, in effect youâ€™re functionally voting for Gov. Romney to be the nominee, because heâ€™s not going to beat him,â€ Gingrich said in Florence. â€œThe only way you can stop Gov. Romney, for all practical purposes, is to vote for Newt Gingrich. â€¦ Itâ€™s a mathematical fact now.â€
Santorum is pressing hard as well, looking for social conservative support to grow since a gathering of national movement leaders decided Saturday to back him.
In 2008, 60 percent of the stateâ€™s voters called themselves evangelicals or born-again Christians, and they broke for Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher, although former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson cut into Huckabeeâ€™s total. That didnâ€™t leave enough for Huckabee to overcome John McCain, who won the state and eventually the nomination.
Neither Gingrich nor Santorum has found a way to steal the otherâ€™s votes.
â€œUntil one of those two figures out how to get votes from the other, theyâ€™re still going to divide the anti-Romney votes,â€ said Danielle Vinson, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.