GWEN IFILL: The battle for the Republican presidential nomination turned to South Carolina today, as the winner of the year's first two contests in Iowa and New Hampshire gathered momentum, and his opponents tried to blunt it.
For Mitt Romney, there was much to savor: a New Hampshire victory and word that he's now got $19 million in the bank.
But the campaign's undisputed Republican front-runner decided today to tamp down expectations.
MITT ROMNEY (R): You know, I don't know if we can win South Carolina. I was fourth there last time I ran. I know it's an uphill battle, but I'll tell you, the send-off I got from New Hampshire last night, that's going to give me a real boost.
GWEN IFILL: Romney is now the common target, as rivals like Newt Gingrich launch fresh attacks on his business background.
NEWT GINGRICH (R): Criticizing specific actions in specific places is not being anti-free enterprise. And crony capitalism, where people pay each other off at the expense of the rest of the country, is not free enterprise. And raising questions about that is not wrong.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
GWEN IFILL: Texas Gov. Rick Perry, on the stump, is accusing Romney of engaging in vulture -- not venture -- capitalism. Perry skipped New Hampshire to make his case in South Carolina. He says Romney's former company, Bain Capital, cost local jobs there.
GOV. RICK PERRY, R-Texas: They used their company to come in and close down a photo album manufacturer in Gaffney, South Carolina, and 150 people lost their jobs there. And they made $20 million off of management fees. And, somehow or another, people are kind of, well that's just capitalism. You can't be criticizing that.
GWEN IFILL: Romney headed Bain, a venture capital and private equity firm, in the 1980s and '90s.
NARRATOR: A group of corporate raiders led by Mitt Romney, more ruthless than Wall Street.
GWEN IFILL: Gingrich cites criticism contained in an online film produced by some of his supporters. It highlights the stories of people who lost jobs at companies Bain bought and sold.
But Texas Congressman Ron Paul, defending Romney, cautioned fellow Republicans against taking that argument too far.
REP. RON PAUL, R-Texas: I don't think they understand the market, or they're just demagoguing. If they understand the market, think they're just demagoguing the issue.
GWEN IFILL: Last night, Romney suggested his critics were doing the Democrats' dirty work.
MITT ROMNEY: President Obama wants to put free enterprise on trial. And in the last few days, we have seen some desperate Republicans join forces with him.
MITT ROMNEY: This is such a mistake for our party and for our nation. The country already has a leader who divides us with the bitter politics of envy. We have to offer an alternative vision. I stand ready to lead us down a different path, where we're lifted up by our desire to succeed, not dragged down by a resentment of success.
GWEN IFILL: And this morning on ABC, he said his economic experience is precisely the quality that most qualifies him for the presidency.
MITT ROMNEY: Well, I think the people in South Carolina want someone who knows how to work the economy for the benefit of America and can get good jobs back in this country and keep us an opportunity nation.
GWEN IFILL: The criticism has now spread to South Carolina's radio and television airwaves.
NARRATOR: What happened after Massachusetts moderate Mitt Romney changed his position from pro-abortion to pro-life?
GWEN IFILL: The Gingrich ad highlights a reversal Romney himself acknowledges, that he changed his mind on abortion while governor of Massachusetts.
Also competing for attention among South Carolina's more conservative voters is Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who ran neck and neck with Gingrich in New Hampshire.
And after ending up in third place last night, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman used what he called his ticket to ride to try to defy expectations in the Palmetto State.
JON HUNTSMAN (R): There are some in this race who say maybe it's better to put politics first. If you believe in putting politics first, I'm not your guy. I believe in putting this country first, and I always will.
GWEN IFILL: After rising in South Carolina polling as Gingrich sank, Romney is hoping to use South Carolina to permanently seal his front-runner status with 10 days to go.
Now more about what is happening on the ground in South Carolina.
Reid Wilson is editor in chief of National Journal's Hotline, a political newsletter. And David Woodard is a political science professor at Clemson University. He conducts the school's Palmetto Poll and has worked as a Republican political consultant, though not for any of this year's presidential candidates.
Reid Wilson, you've been following these candidates hither and yon. Tell me, how is Mitt Romney positioned now in South Carolina?
REID WILSON, The Hotline: Well, Mitt Romney comes to South Carolina from New Hampshire in first place and with momentum behind him.
He's already won the first two contests in this cycle. And the last reliable poll conducted last week by CNN and Time magazine shows that he's at about 37 percent, which is twice what Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have. As well, add in a little bit of Rick Perry, and there you have got the entire story of the campaign so far, a social conservative vote that's being split among a number of candidates and the more fiscally conservative, more socially moderate section of the South Carolina electorate lining up behind Romney.
Nobody's splitting his vote. The other vote is being split at least three ways.
GWEN IFILL: Professor Woodard, does the landscape look like that to you?
DAVID WOODARD, Clemson University: It looks pretty much like that.
I think Rand Paul -- excuse me -- Ron Paul is playing a larger role maybe than we thought before, but the main issue is the social conservatives are divided into three camps.
GWEN IFILL: Well, so tell us what we should be looking for in South Carolina. In Iowa, we saw the social conservatives. In New Hampshire, we saw the fiscal conservatives. And in South Carolina, we're looking for what?
DAVID WOODARD: The social conservatives usually find a candidate they line up behind.
In 2008, it was Huckabee. He surged dramatically at the end and lost by three points to McCain. The question is, can they get behind one candidate, coalesce, and try and push him ahead of Romney?
GWEN IFILL: Reid, we saw a lot of commentary last night about how strong Romney finished in New Hampshire. And I wonder if there is any concern on the ground there. Are you hearing people say, well, it's all over but the shouting, or that South Carolina can completely turn things up side down?
REID WILSON: Well, I mean South Carolina is a state that likes a little bit of momentum.
Ever since 1980, when Ronald Reagan won the state, they have picked either the winner of Iowa or the winner of New Hampshire. And the candidate who wins South Carolina ends up winning the whole Republican nomination.
This time around, there's still a little bit of chance, I suppose, that the social conservatives could rally around one candidate. But it's hard to figure out why they would now, when they failed to in Iowa, when they couldn't raise any kind of real firewall in New Hampshire, where there's just sort of -- there has not been a unifying moment behind one of the candidates.
Three candidates who are vying for that social conservative support are still in the race right now, still viable right now, and because three of them are viable, that sort of means that none of them are viable.
GWEN IFILL: Now, Professor Woodard, we hear a lot about the cost of running advertising. There wasn't as much advertising in New Hampshire. There was a lot in Iowa. And it's supposed to be cheaper in South Carolina. So are you seeing a lot of input -- a lot of influx from these campaigns of negative advertising mostly?
DAVID WOODARD: I talked to one of the campaigns this morning. They said all the TV has been bought in South Carolina for the whole week.
If you watch TV, it's just one ad after another, then back to the show, then one ad after another. It's just really numbing how quickly they're coming here.
DAVID WOODARD: And a lot of them are negative.
GWEN IFILL: And what are the issues, Professor, that move people to go to the polls in South Carolina? We know other places, everyone's talking about the economy. And South Carolina's a much poorer state than New Hampshire, for instance.
DAVID WOODARD: Well, that's right.
I think the economy is the number-one issue. That's what our polls down here are saying, federal spending being number one, unemployment and jobs being number two, bickering in Washington being number three. And yet the historic pattern in South Carolina has been to focus on social issues at election time in the presidential primary.
GWEN IFILL: Reid Wilson, are you watching at all for a Tea Party effect in South Carolina? We haven't seen much evidence of the Tea Party effect that we saw play out in the 2010 midterm elections.
REID WILSON: We really haven't. And I don't think there's going to be any sort of concerted Tea Party movement getting behind one candidate or another this time.
I think the Tea Party's factions are just as divided as the social conservative faction at large. There has not been any sort of groundswell behind one candidate. One thing we have seen, though, is the rise of Ron Paul as sort of a stagnant figure.
In Iowa, he got 18 percent. In New Hampshire last night, he got in the low 20s. He's probably going to get somewhere around there in South Carolina as well. They're not -- those folks aren't necessarily the Tea Party conglomerate, but the Ron Paul fans are the ones who are sort of most steadily behind their own candidate this year. Even Mitt Romney doesn't have the solid core of a fan base that Ron Paul does.
GWEN IFILL: And, yet -- and, yet, Professor Woodard, we hear today that Sen. Jim DeMint, who is a hero in Tea Party circles -- you have co-authored a book with him -- he was interviewed on the radio and said he expects Romney to win in South Carolina.
DAVID WOODARD: Well, that's kind of strange. He's not endorsing anybody, but I think he sees the way that the social conservatives are divided and can't seem to find a champion, which means that by default it goes to Mitt Romney.
There has been quite a bit of discussion here about Ron Paul and his effect because he's coming with momentum out of New Hampshire, too. He usually polls in South Carolina about 12 to 15 percent. I wouldn't be surprised to see him do better than that this time.
GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you to follow up on that, because one of the things you mentioned a moment ago was Mike Huckabee and how well he did ending up in second place four years ago. Mitt Romney was in fourth place four years ago in South Carolina.
And, actually, as you point out, nobody saw Mike Huckabee coming. He didn't reflect that well in the polls at all. So it is possible everything can get turned upside-down?
DAVID WOODARD: Well, I was in the poll center four years ago, and we saw tremendous movement in voter decisions within the last three days before the vote.
If that happens again, anything could happen. But right now I tend to agree with Reid. I think that the person with momentum is Romney. The discussion is on issues that are helping Romney. And I don't see a surge to any one candidate right now. Now, we still have 10 days to go. We'll see.
GWEN IFILL: And, yet, Reid Wilson, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich are prepared to spend a lot of money accusing Mitt Romney of vulture capitalism, as Rick Perry puts it, of crony capitalism, as Newt Gingrich puts it.
Where is their -- what is their strategy that takes them to some sort of opening there?
REID WILSON: Well, let's look at the -- one thing that I think is important to look at is what South Carolina voters are actually seeing.
And right now, they're seeing two things. They're seeing a very small number of positive spots, largely coming from Mitt Romney and a super PAC that backs Mitt Romney, and a number of positive spots coming from Rick Perry's campaign.
The other thing they're seeing is very negative advertisements coming largely from Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich all blasting Romney. There are two possible things that could happen here. One is that this could all backfire and Mitt Romney won't lose a lot of support and he ends up winning next Saturday.
The other, though, is that Mitt Romney's position does fall. Negative advertising has an impact on both the candidate you're running ads against and yourself. And, therefore, if another candidate is going to sweep into that vacuum that is created by any potential Romney fall, maybe it's the guy who is running the other positive ads, Rick Perry. So Perry has a little bit of a shot left, a small window, I think, to creep back into this thing and into some kind of tie for second or third.
GWEN IFILL: Reid Wilson of National Journal's Hotline and Dave Woodard of Clemson University, thank you both so much.
DAVID WOODARD: Thank you.
REID WILSON: Thank you.