WASHINGTON — In a classic political case of better late than never, South Carolina Republicans who earlier spurned Mitt Romney are belatedly embracing him as he closes in on their partys presidential nomination.
But in South Carolina, one of the hotbeds of the nations tea party movement and where Republican activists spent long months taking an anyone-but-Romney stance, the embrace feels reluctant _ more weak handshake than hearty hug.
Romney might be in little danger of losing the state to President Barack Obama in November; Southerner Jimmy Carter in 1976 was the last Democrat to carry South Carolina in a presidential general election. But the degree of enthusiasm for Romney in the Palmetto State will provide a barometer for his ability to motivate party activists who could determine the outcome in a dozen swing states that are likely to decide the election.
South Carolina is the only state outside his native Georgia that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich won, a reflection of Romneys difficulties exciting the Republican base.
South Carolina state Sen. Tom Davis, a tea party leader, backed Rep. Ron Paul of Texas for president. But he now has some good things to say about Romney, though in words that sound as much like a warning as an endorsement.
If he frames the debate between President Obamas agenda of an ever-growing and more powerful government versus faith in free markets and individual liberty, I think hes got a good chance of winning, Davis, a lawyer in Beaufort, S.C., told McClatchy.
If he doesnt draw the line that sharply and tries to tack toward the center, then I think it will be very difficult, Davis said.
South Carolinas streak of choosing the eventual nominee in the previous six contested Republican White House races _ going back to Ronald Reagans 1980 win _ ended this year when Gingrich captured the Jan. 21 primary with 40.4 percent of the vote.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, came in a distant second with 27.8 percent. That showing was better than his finish in the states 2008 presidential primary, when he ended up fourth with 15.1 percent of the vote.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, who himself has shaky conservative bona fides in the eyes of some GOP stalwarts, urged Republicans to get behind Romney in a manner reminiscent of a doctor calling in a prescription.
People say, I may not like Romney because of this or that, Graham told WORD Radio in Greenville, S.C., on Monday.
Its not just about Romney, he said. Its about the people he will put in charge of the government. And I can assure you hes going to put different people in charge of these agencies (than Obama) and will pick different judges. That alone is enough for me to vote for Romney.
South Carolina state Rep. Nathan Ballentine, a Wells Fargo mortgage officer in Chapin, S.C., was one of the first state legislators to endorse Romney _ 11 months ago. Ballentine doesnt understand why his Republican peers arent more bullish on Romney, who he says is just what the nation needs at this point in its history.
Gov. Romney is a businessman, Ballentine said. Hes not a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants kind of guy. Some people think that means hes too calculated, but I think hes exactly what we need. He is a CEO whos got a plan to get our country back on track. Hes not a rah-rah kind of guy, but there arent too many CEOs who are.
Rep. Jeff Duncan, a freshman Republican from Laurens, S.C., who was elected to Congress in 2010 with strong tea party support, said GOP activists antipathy toward Obama will be enough to rally their support for Romney.
Gov. Romneys policies would be a clear departure from the dubious tactics of the Obama administration, said Duncan, who hasnt endorsed Romney or any other Republican candidate.
Im confident that Gov. Romney can win over the American people on the promise of limited government, defending individual liberties and a return to common-sense solutions to our countrys biggest problems, Duncan said.
South Carolina GOP chairman Chad Connelly met with Romney last week and heard his speech to state party leaders gathered in Arizona.
He was as comfortable, relaxed and in command as Ive ever seen him, Connelly said. Hes a better candidate than he was a year ago. Hes able to articulate all the reasons we need to make sure Obama is just the worst one-term president ever.
While Romney didnt win the South Carolina primary, Connelly noted that more Republicans cast ballots _ 607,000 _ than ever before.
When Gov. Romney is the eventual nominee, theyll be excited because theyre so disgusted at what Obama has done, trashing the Constitution and pushing Obamacare down our throats, Connelly said.
Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon, who runs the Rock Hill, S.C., schools political polls, said that Romneys support among South Carolina Republicans has been the steadiest among all presidential candidates, but that he always trailed at least one other "anti-Romney" opponent during the primary season.
"Romney has had solid support, but not great enthusiasm," Huffmon said. "All that said, Republicans in South Carolina will very much line up to vote for him over Barack Obama."