MANCHESTER, N.H. — Mitt Romney has now defied a generation of political gravity, doing what no non-incumbent Republican has done since 1976, winning the one-two states of Iowa and New Hampshire in his quest for the party’s presidential nomination.
But on Wednesday, Mr. Romney’s plane will deliver him to the tougher proving ground of South Carolina for a crucial test.
It will be there — a place famous for surfacing the dark undercurrents of American politics — that he has the opportunity to show he can overcome doubts among evangelicals and Tea Party adherents about his ideological commitment and assume leadership of a party that has spent the last two years under the sway of a conservative insurgency.
If he succeeds, it will be a triumph of political rebranding, a long effort by Mr. Romney to leave behind a past that includes former support for abortion rights and authorship of a health care plan that helped inspire President Obama’s.
A Republican Party whose more energetic precincts have been gripped throughout the Obama presidency by a desire to expel moderates and upend the establishment will have put itself in the hands of a candidate who, more than anyone in the race, comes out of a moderate, establishment Republican tradition.
But to get there — or get there without a protracted battle — he will have to fend off efforts by his rivals in South Carolina to emerge as the singular anti-Romney candidate.
With little left to lose, Newt Gingrich and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas are already assailing him as a heartless job killer in South Carolina, a state hit far harder by the economic downturn than Iowa and New Hampshire were.
But just fending off that attack may not be enough. He is also heading smack into an issue that has followed him through his national political career: his Mormon faith and the suspicion many evangelical Christians have of it.
“It’s going to be difficult for Romney as a Mormon with the evangelical community,” said the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of the Rev. Billy Graham. “For most Christians, Mormonism is an issue and he has a hurdle here that he’s going to have to jump over and navigate around if he can.”
But the barely hidden glee of the Romney campaign when Mr. Perry decided to stay in the race after performing badly in Iowa, to fight another day in South Carolina, betrayed another lucky factor that has helped give the Romney team confidence in the state: In the absence of a successful effort by any of his rivals to rally evangelical voters behind just one of them, the cast of candidates vying for the anti-Romney religious vote is promising to carve it up into smaller pieces.
Mr. Perry made a point of appealing to evangelical voters with a giant prayer rally in Texas shortly before he announced his presidential campaign and has shown crosses in his advertisements; Mr. Gingrich, who is on his third marriage and third religion, has visited with pastors to assure them of his new but deep Roman Catholicism and his apologies to God. And now Rick Santorum is planning to campaign hard in the northern part of South Carolina because “that’s where much of the evangelical vote is,” said former Representative J. Gresham Barrett of South Carolina, a supporter and adviser.
So it is with acute interest that Mr. Romney’s aides are keeping their eye on a meeting of major evangelical leaders to be held this week in Texas, where there has been some talk of a move to coalesce around a single conservative alternative to Mr. Romney.
Gary L. Bauer, president of American Values and one of the organizers, said Tuesday in an interview, “We’re not forming some alliance to stop somebody else that’s competing for the nomination,” adding, “the only person in that room the people want to stop is Barack Obama from having a second term.”
Mr. Bauer, it happens, will be supporting Mr. Santorum, whom he endorsed and campaigned with last week. But Mr. Bauer said the meeting would include advocates “for all of the candidates, including Romney.” Mr. Romney’s advocates are expected to be working the room aggressively.
Yet if evangelical voters hold sway in South Carolina, so does the Tea Party, for which resistance to Mr. Obama’s health care overhaul — so much like the one Mr. Romney signed into law in Massachusetts as governor — was a main ingredient. Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina was a leading advocate for the movement on Capitol Hill and in the 2010 elections. Mr. DeMint will probably not be repeating his endorsement of Mr. Romney from 2008, but spoke approvingly of him on “The Mark Levin Show” on Tuesday night.
A onetime Tea Party favorite, Gov. Nikki R. Haley of South Carolina, has endorsed him, a move that has puzzled and angered many in her base. Her endorsement may hurt her as much as it helps Mr. Romney, but it also highlights how small-government conservatives as well as evangelicals continue to have their doubts about Mr. Romney.
Despite the Romney campaign’s optimism that he has overcome much of the suspicion among evangelicals based on his faith and some of his former views on issues like abortion, those positions are likely to get a new focus as he comes to South Carolina with the nomination in sight. To address the doubts, Mr. Romney and his surrogates are seeking to emphasize values over religious denomination.
In his previous campaign, Mr. Romney hosted evangelical leaders including the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham, Mr. Bauer and roughly a dozen others in his Boston-area living room, speaking about his commitment to his policy proposals and assuring them about his faith in Jesus. He spoke publicly about his faith in a late 2007 speech in College Station, Tex. — his version of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 address on Catholicism.
This year, his campaign has been content to let the issue lie, not calling too much attention to it lest it distract from his hyperfocus on the economy, which is particularly bad in South Carolina, the hardest-hit state on the campaign trail so far. Aides say the Mormon issue is not as potent as it once was.
“He really came on the scene in 2007 as virtually unknown around the country, so there were a lot of efforts in the last cycle to introduce him to conservative groups and social conservative groups, and religious groups,” said Mark DeMoss, a senior adviser who is evangelical. He added, “I would say this to any evangelical group in America: our country would benefit from a good dose of Mormon values, and I don’t think that’s something we ought to apologize for or feel we have to explain away.”
He defined those values as “family and marriage and hard work ethic and character and integrity,” the same buzzwords Mr. Romney’s campaign has been using to define him in recent days as South Carolina looms. Also, aides acknowledge, a national advertising campaign from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, not connected to Mr. Romney, portraying Mormons as everyday Americans has further helped demystify the religion.
Mr. Graham said that he does “not agree with Mormon teaching” but respected “their strong values, their moral code.” He said he does not consider the faith a liability in a president and neither would others, but Mr. Romney would help himself if he were “to get on the road and meet with as many church leaders as he can.”
Whether all of the threatening forces rise up against him in the next 10 days remains to be seen. The Rev. Brad Atkins, president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, said that many of the state’s voters are “so beaten down” by the economy that they are not likely voting so much on issues like Mormonism, if they even vote at all.
Then again, South Carolina has a proud tradition of political strategists who know how to build an opposition (it is, after all, where Senator John McCain of Arizona was falsely accused of fathering an African-American child out of wedlock in 2000). And this go-round, Mr. Romney has yet to face the sort of bare-knuckled campaign tactics employed with such precision there.
“One thing about South Carolina: it’s kind of like football,” Mr. Barrett said. “It’s a full-contact sport.”
Jennifer Steinhauer contributed reporting from Washington.