Social conservatives and evangelical leaders are viewing the South Carolina primary on January 21st as their final chance to stop Mitt Romney taking the Republican presidential nomination. Various groups are expected to gather this week to discuss tactics, with some Republicans fearing a bitter civil war within the party regardless of the outcome.
It’s well-established that some conservatives are vehemently opposed to Romney, for a variety of reasons that include factors such as his past support of abortion, his corporate background and even his Mormon faith. But this opposition shows no signs of abating even as Romney marches towards what seems at the moment to be an inevitable victory in the Republican nomination race.
The problem for Romney’s many opponents is that no-one has emerged as a viable alternative. The likes of Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann have all tried and failed to mount a sustained challenge. Meanwhile the only really credible candidates left in the running seem to be Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. Will conservatives get behind one of these two in a last-ditch attempt to defeat Romney? If they organised themselves well and had the funding, they might have a real chance of victory.
Then there’s the nuclear option: a new candidate. It’s technically not too late for a new runner to enter the race. But who? The likes of Sarah Palin would probably be too divisive, while Mike Huckabee has shown no interest in a last-ditch campaign. There’s Chris Christie, who could yet be persuaded, or Jeb Bush, who has kept far back. Or there’s Marco Rubio, the popular (but nationally untested) figure who many tip as a future candidate.
It seems that some of these figures are holding back for 2016, when there will be no incumbent Democrat in the White House. So while there seems to be a strong anti-Romney push, the question remains: who will they put their considerable strength behind? And even if they succeed, will the Republican party be able to hold together as various powerful, influential but very different groups wrestle for power? The Republican party itself could split, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing: parties have split before, sometimes with beneficial results for at least some of those concerned.
The truth is that Romney looks unstoppable, but only if you accept that (a) social conservatives and evangelicals do not possess the financial firepower to back a last-minute rival, and (b) Ron Paul (and perhaps to a lesser extent Rick Santorum) cannot offer a legitimate challenge. So perhaps Romney isn’t as unstoppable as he seems, even if he has momentum at the moment. Yes, things look good for him after New Hampshire. But do the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire really decide the Republican nominee? After South Carolina, things might be looking very different.