Under the old political rules, Mitt Romney arrived in South Carolina this week the prohibitive Republican front-runner: flush with cash, awash in endorsements from a party establishment starting to coalesce behind him and buoyed by victories in Iowa and New Hampshire.
But as Mr. Romney is quickly learning, those rules no longer apply.
Mr. Romney’s carefully tended network of Republican donors has been rendered functionally less important by “super PACs,” through which a handful of wealthy individuals are financing a multimillion-dollar advertising barrage to assail his record and prop up his opponents.
And Mr. Romney’s victories in Iowa and New Hampshire have netted him just a handful of the delegates he needs to become the nominee, thanks to the party’s decision last year to lengthen the nominating process by shifting more winner-take-all contests to the end of the primary season.
As a result, Mr. Romney’s remaining opponents have little incentive to drop out, knowing that their support from super PACs and Internet contributions from grass-roots supporters can keep them in the race long after they would have remained viable in earlier eras, potentially draining money and delegates away from Mr. Romney even as he lurches toward the nomination.
Since the contests began, only one candidate, Representative Michele Bachmann, has pulled out, while two others, Newt Gingrich and Gov. Rick Perry, have failed to break into the top three in Iowa or New Hampshire.
“I think everybody in the race right now has a legitimate shot,” Mr. Romney said to reporters at a news conference in South Carolina on Thursday. “And I wish them all well.”
The debut of candidate-aligned super PACs in the Republican primaries has further upended a party already struggling to reconcile its restive Tea Party-inspired grass roots with a traditional party apparatus that is rapidly losing whatever control it once exerted over the process.
Enter 'Winning Our Future'
On Thursday, even as hundreds of wealthy Republicans gathered in Palm Beach, Fla., and raised an estimated $1.5 million for Mr. Romney the old-fashioned way, a super PAC backing Mr. Gingrich began buying half-hour blocks of advertising time in South Carolina, with preparations to broadcast a scathing video about Mr. Romney’s record as the founder of Bain Capital.
The group, Winning Our Future, is armed with $5 million from just a single Gingrich ally, the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. And Mr. Gingrich signaled on Thursday that he would continue his own assaults on Mr. Romney’s private equity days, even as other prominent Republicans — including Rudolph W. Giuliani and Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, a Tea Party favorite — called on him to cease.
“I’m not going to back down or be afraid to say, ‘We, the American people, have the right to know, and any candidate for president has an obligation to tell us,’ ” Mr. Gingrich said at a convention of the elderly in Columbia.
Asked if Winning Our Future was keeping him in the race, Mr. Gingrich said that “it just offsets the other PACs.”
'Red, White and Blue'
He is not necessarily wrong. The Red, White and Blue Fund, an outside group that is promoting the candidacy of Rick Santorum, began advertising in South Carolina before the New Hampshire primary, softening the negative effects of Mr. Santorum’s potentially campaign killing — at least by the old rules — poor finish there on Tuesday.
On Thursday, the group, which was seeded with a major contribution from Foster Friess, a wealthy mutual fund executive, announced a new investment of $600,000 in television advertising in South Carolina. The group had its largest fund-raising day on Wednesday, officials said, allowing it to expand its reach into all television markets in the state.
In a brief interview on Thursday, Mr. Santorum said that he welcomed the support and acknowledged that his allies had kept his candidacy afloat. Asked whether the new investment would improve his chances in South Carolina, his eyes lit up, and he declared, “I hope so!”
“We certainly don’t have the kind of money that these other super PACs have,” Mr. Santorum said after a stop in Hilton Head, S.C., “but the modest amount that they’re able to put out there will, hopefully, be a help to us.”
While Jon M. Huntsman Jr. has had too little campaign cash to afford substantial advertising, a super PAC supporting him, Our Destiny, helped keep him afloat through New Hampshire and is expected to weigh in for him to some degree in South Carolina. The group has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Mr. Huntsman’s father, a billionaire industrialist.
Officials with Mr. Huntsman’s campaign have conceded that without the help of the super PAC supporting him, they would have had a much harder time competing. But John Weaver, the chief political strategist for Mr. Huntsman, said having Our Destiny’s help was “not a clean shot” because it left the campaign’s strategy in the hands of people it is legally prohibited from coordinating directly with.
“We would prefer to have the funds within our coffers so we could have direct control of the message,” Mr. Weaver said.
Mr. Weaver put Mr. Huntsman in a different category than Mr. Gingrich, noting that Mr. Huntsman began rising in the polls just before Election Day in New Hampshire, whereas Mr. Gingrich began a sustained slide weeks beforehand. “Without a super PAC, Newt wouldn’t have left Des Moines,” he said.
The outside help for his rivals may, of course, prove to have an upside for Mr. Romney: By keeping a half-dozen different candidates viable, the super PACs may inadvertently be making it impossible for one of them to emerge as the alternative to him.
But the change in the delegate-awarding process means that if Mr. Romney continues to win states only with pluralities, he could face a long nominating fight, as other candidates pick up delegates under new party rules that increase the number of states that award delegates based on vote share.
Still, Mr. Romney will himself enjoy the benefit of a well-financed super PAC in his own corner: Restore Our Future, which spent millions of dollars to attack Mr. Gingrich in Iowa and is preparing to spend even more in South Carolina and Florida.