COLUMBIA, S.C. — Mitt Romney swept into South Carolina on Wednesday in pursuit of a confirming victory in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, buoyed by a second straight electoral triumph, bulging campaign coffers and warm words from the state's pre-eminent practitioner of tea party politics.
"I don't want to be overconfident," said the Republican front-runner. But increasingly, he was talking about his plans for challenging President Barack Obama in the fall, not his primary foes of the moment.
Running out of time, his GOP rivals showed no sign of surrender.
Newt Gingrich welcomed Romney into the first Southern primary state with a fresh attack on his business career and a new television ad painting him as a flip-flopper on abortion. Said former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum: "South Carolina is going to be different. It is wide open for anyone."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry drawled his way through a busy campaign day, displaying a Southern attribute that Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, could not hope to match.
But after a solid win in New Hampshire, Romney got help from unlikely sources.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who ran second in New Hampshire, chastised Gingrich and Perry for criticizing the front-runner's experience as a venture capitalist whose firm acquired, slimmed down and then spun off existing companies, often earning large profits in the process.
"I just wonder whether they're totally ignorant of economics or whether they're willing to demagogue just with the hopes of getting a vote or two," he said, without mentioning anyone by name.
South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint echoed Paul's remarks, and declared: "I think Romney's going to win here. ... He's hitting a lot of hot buttons for me about balancing the budget, and frankly I'm a little concerned about the few Republicans who have criticized some of what I consider to be free market principles here."
At an evening town hall meeting in Columbia, Santorum defended Romney while accusing Obama of criticizing business people.
"It's this hostile rhetoric, which unfortunately – and I don't want to stand here and be a defender of Mitt Romney – but unfortunately even some in our own party now, even some running for president will engage in with respect to capitalism," Santorum said. "It's bad enough for Barack Obama to blame folks in business for causing problems in this country. It's one other thing for Republicans to join in on this,"
DeMint has been lobbied heavily by several of the presidential contenders eager for his endorsement and has so far chosen to remain neutral. Still, the remarks by a man who has sometimes taken the tea party's side in clashes with the Republican establishment sent a clear signal that Romney was to be viewed as worthy of support.
The day's events marked the unofficial start of a 10-day campaign that includes a pair of televised debates, millions of dollars in television ads and the first competition of the year in a state with high unemployment, a major military presence and a large population of evangelicals.
Joblessness in South Carolina, at 9.9 percent, is almost as high as in Iowa (5.7 percent) and New Hampshire (5.2 percent) combined. By some estimates, as much as 60 percent of the primary electorate here is comprised of evangelicals.
Culturally and historically, the state has relatively little in common with either Iowa or New Hampshire.
Southwesterner Perry tried to emphasize a regional affinity.
"There wouldn't be a Texas without South Carolina," Perry said, referring to the Southern fighters who helped Texas gain independence from Mexico in the 1830s. As the other contenders arrived, his campaign began airing a television commercial in which decorated military veterans vouched for his commitment to the armed forces.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who finished third in New Hampshire, also urged Republicans to ease the criticism over Romney's business career and focus instead on his record as governor of Massachusetts.
"He didn't deliver any big bold economic proposals," Huntsman said. "I delivered the largest tax cut in the history of my state."
Given the political state of play, a victory by Romney could signal a quick end to what for months looked like it might be a long war of attrition for the nomination.
Gingrich conceded as much. "There's no more time for talking about stopping Mitt Romney," he wrote in a "Dear Conservative" fundraising appeal. "We're going to do it next week in South Carolina or he's almost certain to be the Republican nominee."
On the other hand, should Romney stumble, it would call into question his ability to win Southern primaries, and no Republican in 30 years has won the nomination without a first-place finish in the state.
On the morning after his victory in New Hampshire, polls show him ahead in the state, but he sought to manage expectations.
"I don't know if we can win South Carolina," he said, noting that he finished fourth here in 2008, the first time he sought the White House.
At the same time, he parried questions about his conservatism and the possible impact his Mormon faith would have on his efforts.
"The conservatives in New Hampshire, the people who called themselves very conservative, the tea partyers in New Hampshire, supported me," he said.
As for religion, he said, "There are people who want to elect a commander in chief. They're not worried about electing a pastor in chief.
Interviews on Tuesday with New Hampshire voters as they left their polling places showed Romney outpaced his rivals among people who called themselves very conservative, somewhat conservative and moderate to liberal.
He drew 21 percent support among white evangelical voters, a better showing than any other contender, and the backing of 51 percent of the voters who said they support the tea party, more than double what he gained in the Iowa caucuses a week earlier.
Perhaps most significant was his strength among primary goers who said the ability to defeat Obama was the most important factor for them as they settled on a candidate. Romney won the votes of 63 percent of those, improving on the 48 percent from the same category in Iowa.
As if to demonstrate Romney's strength, his campaign announced it had $19 million cash on hand and rolled out a Spanish-language television commercial in advance of Florida's Jan. 31 primary.
The former governor brushed aside the advertising attack from Gingrich, saying, "Like Ronald Reagan before me, many years ago I changed from being pro-choice to pro-life." It was a pointed rebuttal to the former House speaker, who has campaigned for months as the true conservative heir to Reagan.
Associated Press writers Kasie Hunt, Philip Elliott, Brian Bakst, Jim Davenport and Charles Babington in South Carolina and Stacy A. Anderson in Washington contributed to this report. Espo reported from Washington.