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South Carolina embraces Romney, but will it vote for him?

Randall Hill / Reuters

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets supporters after a town hall meeting Saturday at the Horry-Georgetown Technical College Grand Strand Conference Center in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

MYRTLE BEACH, SC-- For the 24 hours after his flight touched down in the South Carolina, presidential hopeful Mitt Romney was received like a rock star here.

Friday afternoon, with Gov. Nikki Haley, R-SC, at his side, Romney drew a crowd so large that the Greenville fire station hosting the event had to shut its doors. When the fire marshal and the fire chief are the same person, you listen to what he says.

In two stops Saturday with Haley, Romney drew crowds dwarfing those he typically gets in Iowa and New Hampshire. At the last event in Myrtle Beach, police estimated 500 people crammed into a small auditorium and overflow room to hear the governor as Romney advance staff searched desperately for extra chairs.

Paul Peterson, a political science professor at nearby Coastal Carolina University who was in attendance, said that the crowd was bigger than any he saw at a Romney event during the 2008 South Carolina primary campaign.

But local political observers say boisterous town halls are the norm in the Palmetto state. It begs the question: can a weekend rock-star Romney - the same man who finished a distant third in the 2008 primary here - actually win the state?

Romney currently trails former House Speaker Newt Gingrich here by 19 points, according to the latest NBC News/Marist poll. The same poll shows daunting challenges for Romney: 60 percent of likely voters here say they see the former Massachusetts governor as either a moderate or liberal. That's a problem in a state where seventy percent of likely voters consider themselves conservative or very conservative.

The Romney campaign hopes the endorsement of the conservative Haley, whose approval numbers have slid to just 35 percent statewide according to a Winthrop University poll, could stem the tide. Her 53 percent approval rating among Republicans statewide, her outsize national profile and her full-throated endorsement certainly can't hurt.

"He’s no longer a candidate that’s trying to win. He’s already a leader that knows what he wants to do the first day he gets into office," Haley told reporters yesterday by way of explaining her decision. She added that the "icing on the cake" was the Obama administration's continuing attacks on Romney, which proved he was a "real threat."

If Haley's endorsement could inspire one group whose votes Romney needs here, it would be Tea Party supporters, who according to NBC/Marist polling make up half of likely voters in South Carolina, and who largely fueled Haley's candidacy in 2010. Many Tea Party supporters have been distrustful of Romney, particularly because of his identification with President Obama's healthcare plan, and have generally coalesced around other candidates thus far.

Romney sought to allay Tea Party supporters' fears this morning, saying he could be the "ideal" candidate for them.

"I think the Tea Party is anxious to have people who are outside Washington coming in to change Washington, as opposed to people who stayed in Washington for 30 years," Romney told reporters Saturday morning in Charleston. "And I believe on the issues as well that I line up with a smaller government , a less intrusive government, regulations being pared back, holding down the tax rates of the American people, maintaining a strong defense, and so many Tea Party folks are going to find me, I believe, to be the ideal candidate."

But if Tea Party support never comes his way, at least one local republican leader suggested Romney could have a path to victory in the state by collecting the more moderate, non-activist voters in communities like Myrtle Beach.

“This is the network that we can build,” said Johnny Bellamie, chairman of the Horry County Republican Party, at today's second town hall. “These are people that don’t normally go to the meetings, they’re just people who are interested in getting the right guy and that’s very encouraging.”

But to build that network, Romney will likely need to fight here - a state he has visited only seven times this cycle.

“He has to come here more to sustain this. He has to spend more face time in South Carolina because he hasn’t been here,” Bellamie said.

With less than a month to go - and New Hampshire and Iowa looming large - before South Carolina casts its votes, will he have time? 

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