01/20/2012 09:07 pm ET

Mitt Romney Calls South Carolina An 'Uphill Battle' As Vote Nears

GREENVILLE, S.C. -- South Carolinians say it's the state that picks presidents. Mitt Romney used to say so, too.

On Friday, though, the floor began to fall from under a carefully conducted candidacy, as it began to look like Romney did not have a sure victory. Standing in the rain in Gilbert, S.C., Romney admitted, jokingly, that he lost in Iowa -- if only by a narrow margin -- no longer able to claim two sequential victories now that Rick Santorum had been declared the winner.

"When I was in Iowa I joked that the corn counted as an amber wave of grain," he told a crowd of about 300 after he quoted "America the Beautiful." "That may account for my slim, uh, defeat there. I used to say that accounted for an eight-point win, but I had to change my rhetoric in the last couple of days."

He dropped the joke from a speech in North Charleston, S.C., in the afternoon. By then, pressures on the campaign had begun to grow, with calls for a release of his tax returns soon -- not in April as he has planned -- came from fellow Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown and South Carolina Republican Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.). His effort to put a similar burden on Gingrich, in the form of demanding he release the report of his ethics violation as a congressman, largely fell flat, possibly because much of the ethics report's contents are already known. And a Clemson University poll released Friday put Gingrich six percentage points ahead of Romney.

Despite a crush of spending by his campaign and superPACs supporting him, it began to look as if a Romney victory in the Palmetto State would be elusive -- on the same day that progressive political action committee American Bridge pointed out a Romney ad with text reading "On Saturday South Carolina Picks a President."

Romney supporters said they were sure that he would win the nomination on Saturday, and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who has endorsed the candidate, said in Gilbert that she has a "gut feeling" the primary would go his way. Romney seemed less sure. In a 10-minute availability with reporters, he said he wants to win, but that he's happy just to be "neck-and-neck" with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is climbing in the polls and won the endorsement of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who dropped out of the race on Thursday.

On Friday, Romney began to seriously dial back expectations. He said he had an "uphill battle" in South Carolina anyway, because Gingrich is from the neighboring state, and that it's more important to win delegates, who will make the eventual choice at the Republican National Convention in August should the race still be undecided.

"I want as many delegates as I can get -- I want the most delegates coming out of South Carolina," he told reporters in Gilbert. "But I don’t know what the numbers will be."

Former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, a chief Romney surrogate, made the same effort on Friday, telling reporters he expects a "long slog" through the primary season.

Despite the small, but growing, cracks in the campaign, the events were high-energy and well-attended. In Gilbert, about 300 people stood with umbrellas or signs -- "Use those signs for what they're for," Romney told them. "Keep your heads dry" -- cheered and chanted as he and Haley talked about how Obama stomps on states' rights and the military.

Later in the day in North Charleston, a similar-sized crowd erupted into applause when Romney made his grand entrance -- his bus driving into the convention center room.

Supporters said they expect him to win in South Carolina and go on to be the nominee. With the state's importance to the primary, it could cause trouble if he does not.

"It would be strange if he doesn't" win, Nancy Wheeler, a 58-year-old who lives in Charleston, said after the rally there.

Marion Jones, 78, a retired retail manager, supported Romney in 2008 and will again this year. She said winning for Romney was the only option.

"He needs to win in South Carolina, but I think he will do very well in Florida," Jones said. "Everybody has focused on South Carolina, and they're saying that for 30 years ago our winner becomes the nominee. I think the nation is looking at that, so I think it's important that he does win it."

Haley, too, expressed full confidence that Romney would win on Saturday. She said in North Charleston that calls have been coming in from former Perry supporters that will now support Romney, downplaying the idea that Perry's departure from the race will only aid Gingrich.

"Let's celebrate really loudly tomorrow night when he comes in first," she told supporters.