Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich Expected to Battle in South Carolina

The fight for the Republican presidential nomination heads south.

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Now it's on to South Carolina for the Republican presidential candidates, with a ferocious battle expected between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.

Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, is in a strong position after his victory in the New Hampshire primary Tuesday night. Romney won with about 39 per cent of the vote, a solid showing that undermined the critics who said he was stuck at about 25 per cent support among Republicans across the country.

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas finished second with 23 per cent, former Gov. Jon Hunstman of Utah was third with 17 per cent, and the remaining candidates lagged far behind.

[Read: What's Next for Huntsman?]

Romney and his supporters were buoyant. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a Romney supporter, told Fox News, "We can wrap this thing up more quickly than we originally thought."

But the race is likely to get much more harsh in South Carolina as Romney's rivals pull out all the stops to defeat him. Former House Speaker Gingrich has promised a very negative attack strategy, and a big part of it will be to criticize Romney's work as a partner at Bain Capital, which Gingrich says plundered the companies in which it invested and left many workers unemployed. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas is hammering at the same issue.

Romney says Gingrich and Perry are really attacking the free-enterprise system and the techniques commonly used in a market economy. And Romney is expected to strike back fiercely, especially at Gingrich who is considered more of a threat than Perry. Romney will use the same themes that worked against the former speaker in the Iowa caucuses a week-and-a-half ago--that Gingrich is a hypocrite and an unreliable conservative.

[Read: The Palmetto End Game]

Romney isn't considered naturally strong in South Carolina, especially among the evangelical Christians and other social conservatives who are key parts of the GOP electorate. But Romney will benefit from the concern that South Carolinians have about the economy, which he has made his top issue. The unemployment rate in the state is hovering at 10 per cent, considerably higher than the national average of about 8.5 per cent.

And the divisions among conservatives in South Carolina are similar to the fractures among Republicans nationally. The GOP is split among social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, and libertarians. Under those conditions, and with five other candidates dividing the alternative-to-Romney vote, the former Massachusetts governor can again win with a plurality, and polls indicate that he has a good chance to do so. That would give him three victories in a row and a big head of steam going into the Florida primary January 21.

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