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Unstoppable Romney?

"Unstoppable Romney?" Continued...

A series of questions from the audience showed that economic issues were the dominant concern. Gingrich easily rattled off data about South Carolina manufacturing woes but said less about his brutal attacks on Romney's work as portfolio manager at Bain Capital. Gingrich had slammed Romney's work at the firm that included closing some companies, but the criticism backfired: Other GOP candidates, including Santorum and Rep. Ron Paul, defended Romney's work as part of free enterprise.

The most glaring target of the morning remained Obama and his policies, and the biggest applause line of the day came when Gingrich vowed to undo the president's healthcare legislation. But concerns about Gingrich's character and temperament aren't going away, so he prefers to talk about the importance of South Carolina's primary: "I believe the next 10 days [before the primary] are as important to American history as any other we've seen in American modern politics."

Romney set the stakes high, too: In his first appearance in South Carolina after winning the New Hampshire primary, the former governor told a crowd of about 300 people in Columbia that the presidential race was about preserving the soul of America. That mostly centered on controlling spiraling debt, managing the economy, and protecting national security-issues over which voters consistently express deep concern.

When it comes to social issues, Romney isn't as aggressive: Though he regularly answers debate questions by saying that he's pro-life and against gay marriage, he doesn't include those issues in stump speeches.

Mark DeMoss-an evangelical and an unpaid adviser to the Romney campaign-says the candidate hasn't focused on evangelical outreach during this primary season: "Gov. Romney has an outreach to America." (Curtis Loftis-the South Carolina State Treasurer and chairman of Romney's campaign in the state-says he's met with social conservatives to promote the candidate.)

For Romney volunteer Vicki Robbins, social issues are important, but economic woes dominate. As she distributed Romney stickers outside his campaign event, Robbins says she weighed all the candidates but liked Romney's business record and economic proposals. Most of all, she says she likes Romney for one central reason: "We need to beat Obama, and I believe he's the one who can do it."

That may be Romney's trump card. Polls show many Republican voters placing a high priority on nominating a candidate who can win the general election. And Romney's win in New Hampshire-a far less conservative state than South Carolina-suggests he could appeal to a broader base. The candidate gained voters across categories, including evangelicals: Romney took 31 percent of self-identified evangelicals, while Santorum won 23 percent. (Santorum easily won evangelical voters in Iowa.) Romney also took 33 percent of the independent vote, while second-place finisher Ron Paul took 30 percent.

But despite perceived electability, some undecided voters still have concerns. The formerly pro-abortion Romney emphasizes that he's now pro-life, but he still faces doubts from some voters. At the Gingrich rally earlier in the day, Lou Pantuosco said while he's most concerned about a candidate who could improve the country's manufacturing sector, he's also concerned about social issues like abortion and marriage. When it comes to Romney, the undecided voter feels unsure: "I guess that's what he believes. I just don't think he'd fight for it."

That may be Santorum's trump card. The former Pennsylvania senator boasts a staunchly pro-life voting record and an unambiguous opposition to gay marriage. Though he doesn't lead with those issues, voters often ask him about them. The candidate faced a barrage of questions about gay marriage during his New Hampshire campaign and often endured jeers from crowds when he expressed opposition.

When a caller to a radio show told Santorum that the race didn't need "a Jesus candidate," the outspoken Catholic said he wouldn't mind being called that name: "We always need a Jesus candidate. I don't mean necessarily that we always need a Christian, but we need someone who believes in something more than themselves."

That theme ran through the candidate's speech during a rally just after Romney's event in Columbia. Santorum spoke mostly about the economy but also discussed American rights and where they come from: "They come from a loving God who gave us rights because we are made in His image." He later answered a question about abortion and gay marriage by saying: "All the other candidates have similar positions, but I'm told I'm the extremist candidate. Maybe it's because I'm the only one who talks about it. And maybe it seems like I mean it."

Santorum connects well with voters on emotional issues like pro-life concerns. He regularly tries to explain connections between economic and social issues, and to bring in historical perspective. That led to some of his answers to questions at the Jan. 11 rally running long, with some audience members looking at their watches. For example, Santorum's answer to a question about balanced budgets led to a book recommendation about George Washington and a discussion of the British Empire.

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