Article published Dec 18, 2006
Romney has team in place
Editor's note: The Herald-Journal will be exploring various aspects of the likely 2008 presidential contenders from now through the primary. Today is the second day of a two-day series focusing on Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Sunday's story, which can be found at GoUpstate.com, explored the impact of Romney's Mormon faith.
The 2008 presidential primary is still more than a year away, but that hasn't stopped the likely contenders from parading through South Carolina in recent months. While some are content to make a quick visit and possibly leave behind a small contribution for local party coffers, a few are doing more than that.
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who will be one of the better-financed candidates in the race if he runs, has begun to amass quite an army in South Carolina.
Several of those Romney ground troops will gather in Spartanburg
this week -- specifically, at party chairman Rick Beltram's home -- when the county Republican Party starts planning its precinct reorganization, one of the first building blocks on the road to choosing national delegates for 2008.
Romney's paid staffers in the Palmetto State include powerful Republican operatives Warren Tompkins and George Ramsey, former Republican Governors Association aide Nick Breeding and Greenville fundraising consultant Leslie Gaines.
He also has several others on his side, including Terry Sullivan, who served as U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint's campaign manager in 2004.
Tompkins, Ramsey and Sullivan alone have a formidable resume in Republican politics, and all of them supported President George W. Bush's efforts here in 2000.
"There's some players right there that would give him some traction in South Carolina," said Blease Graham, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. "While the conservative religious voter in South Carolina is very important, in Romney's case, it could be critically important, if he could use the religious conservative vote as a base and then expand it out toward more moderate voters."
Tompkins said he hasn't had as much fun working since he managed Ronald Reagan's campaign in South Carolina leading up to the 1980 general election.
Romney's Mormon faith, which has been a topic of local and national scrutiny, will help him in the Palmetto State, Tompkins said.
"We're electing a president, not a preacher," he said. "South Carolinians, despite theological differences, will look at the person who is best suited to be president of the United States, who has the best vision, who has the best plan, and who they feel they share values with. If you put all those on paper, Mitt Romney's the guy."
Graham estimates the religious conservative vote in South Carolina to be no more than about 25 percent -- not enough to carry the state, but a strong foundation on which Romney could build if he successfully wins it over.
"The bottom line is, it depends on how he plays it," Graham said. "I don't think the religious affiliation is determining, really."
Romney's Commonwealth Political Action Committee contributed $148,500 to Republican candidates and party organizations during the last election cycle, according to information supplied by the PAC.
(Also during that time, Arizona Sen. John McCain's Straight Talk America political action committee contributed nearly $190,000 to Republican candidates and party organizations -- and that's not counting fundraising events that featured him as a guest speaker.)
The Massachusetts effect
Perhaps a bigger danger to Romney is where he's from physically, not where he's going spiritually, Blease Graham said.
It's the other "M" word: Massachusetts.
The Bay State, after all, has a history of being heavily Democratic, liberal, and tax laden, Graham said.
But, "He certainly didn't govern as a liberal," Tompkins said.
"Massachusetts … has been characterized so long by Republicans as a state that's very different from South Carolina," Graham said.
"If a candidate like Romney is able to distinguish himself from that, then he'll probably get a fair look."
While McCain and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani are likely to court more moderate voters, Romney could attract the more conservative end of the GOP.
That's where he could face the biggest threats on the increasingly crowded Republican ticket.
U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, for instance, visited Spartanburg last week and spoke to a small group of the party faithful. While Hunter, R-Calif., is focusing mainly on trade issues, immigration and the war in Iraq -- he is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee -- he also is a social conservative. Hunter believes in abortion only to save the life of a mother, he says marriage should only be defined as the union of one man and one woman, and he believes in protecting religious symbols that are historically significant.
When asked, Hunter wouldn't comment on Romney's faith.
On the forthcoming presidential race, he said only, "I'm not going to run against any Republican. I'm going to run for America."
Of course, Romney's not a shoe-in for social conservatives, whether they take his religion into account or not.
The New York Times and Boston Globe last week reported that Romney's views on homosexuality have come under attack after he advocated gay-friendly positions during a Senate run in 1994.
(McCain's camp already has made sure to send links to those articles out to reporters.)
During that campaign, Tompkins said Romney "sought to beat Ted Kennedy, not befriend him. We can't say that for all the other candidates."
He added that Romney's record has been consistent with conservative values.
But one quality of voters that's often cited in critical primary states, like New Hampshire, is that many residents decide whom they'll vote for after meeting all the candidates.
And those who should know -- like McCain, who has campaigned here and there extensively in the past -- say South Carolina is becoming more and more like the Granite State.
June Bond, a top aide in the Spartanburg County GOP, is Romney's point person in Spartanburg. (She's a volunteer, not a paid staffer.)
Bond says she made the decision to support Romney only after meeting him -- and after meeting McCain, Giuliani, New York Gov. George Pataki, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, all of whom have visited the county.
"It was not something I just took lightly," she said.
Jason Spencer can be reached at 562-7214 or firstname.lastname@example.org.