For months, South Carolina congressman Tim Scott has been in the thick of the Republican primary. Starting in August, he has hosted every major presidential candidate but Ron Paul — who has not been able to make it because of logistical issues — in a series of town-hall meetings in the Palmetto State.
Now, Scott thinks the primary is likely to give Mitt Romney his third victory. “I think it is his to lose,” Scott says.
Scott sailed to victory in 2010 on the strength of his tea-party credentials. Endorsed by Sarah Palin, the Club for Growth, and local tea-party groups, Scott beat out eight other contenders in the Republican primary for his congressional seat. Now, discussing whether Romney should be considered a tea-party candidate, Scott employs cautious language. “I think that if you believe we’re taxed enough already, that we need a smaller government, and that free markets are a key ingredient to a better economy, then he is the tea-party guy,” he says. “I’m not sure that the average tea-party candidate would say he’s been a tea-party guy all of his career.”
And while Scott thinks a Romney victory is likely, he doesn’t see it as inevitable. With the primary still eight days away, there remains plenty of time for poll numbers to rise — or fall. Right now, one key wild card is the impact of the harsh Bain Capital attacks coming from Newt Gingrich (and the super PAC backing him) and Rick Perry. “The immediate response has been to perhaps hold people away from Governor Romney, but the long-term impact — the definition of long-term is between now and next Saturday — will be to coalesce troops in his backyard,” Scott says. Romney will have support of his own in the coming days: Scott says he has heard that some of the most prominent business leaders in the state are planning to endorse Romney.
If the attacks do ultimately backfire, Scott envisions, Gingrich’s supporters will split, some opting for Romney (who has the “Big Mo” in light of his dual victories) and others for Santorum (who has the social-conservative background many want to see in their candidate).
Scott expects that Gingrich and Santorum will likely join Romney in the top three. While he agrees that Perry’s status as a fellow southerner appeals to Palmetto State voters, he doesn’t see Perry being able to make up his lost ground in the polls in the days remaining. Scott is also skeptical about Paul’s chance of repeating his success in Iowa and New Hampshire and placing in the top three. “I don’t know if it’s a strong possibility, but it is a possibility. I think that the strength of Santorum or Gingrich, coupled with Romney, will make it very difficult for someone other than three of them to finish one, two, three,” the congressman remarks.
To Scott, one of the perplexing aspects of the current poll numbers is Santorum’s inability to catch fire. There is no question that Santorum has surged — rocketing from 3 percent in South Carolina on the day of the Iowa caucuses to 17 percent now, according to the Real Clear Politics polling averages — but he still lags behind both Gingrich and Romney. In light of South Carolina’s evangelical base and reputation as a social-conservative bastion, it’s surprising that the candidate who united Iowa’s social conservatives in an even more divided field has not gained more traction. “I have been looking for the surge. He’s an impressive candidate, with a lot to offer,” Scott remarks. “You would think that he would be doing better.” One factor Scott thinks is hurting Santorum: the candidate’s fourth-place finish in New Hampshire, which may have made voters concerned about his overall electability.
With eight days left, plenty of events could affect the race. Tomorrow, Scott is co-hosting a forum with Mike Huckabee that will feature most of the field. Two more debates will occur before the primary is held. And Scott himself may endorse. With Sen. Jim DeMint opting not to endorse this cycle and Gov. Nikki Haley solidly behind Romney, Scott may be the most high-profile tea-party endorser left. He hasn’t decided for sure if he will endorse — and if he’s ruled out endorsing any candidates at this juncture, he’s not ready to disclose which ones — but if he does, it will be by the middle of next week. “If we don’t endorse by Tuesday or Wednesday, we think we will have a hard time having any impact,” Scott says. “We’re obviously hopeful that we’ll be in a position to say something publicly soon.”
To Scott, non-Romney candidates should view the South Carolina primary as their Alamo.
“South Carolina is the last possible stand for all the candidates,” he says. “If Romney wins South Carolina, I think it’s very difficult to stop him going forward.”
“So,” Scott adds, “it’s now or never.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.