By Steve Holland
COLUMBIA, South Carolina (Reuters) - Republican presidential contenders brought buckets of cash and sharp rhetoric to South Carolina on Wednesday for an intense 10-day battle that may determine whether anyone can stop front-runner Mitt Romney's march to the party's nomination.
A Romney victory in the January 21 South Carolina primary, the next in a series of state-by-state contests among the Republican candidates, could extinguish his rivals' hopes of keeping him from becoming the nominee to take on Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 6 general election.
But a poll by the Augusta Chronicle showed Romney with 23 percent support, followed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich with 21 percent. The poll's 3.6 percent margin of error put them in a virtual tie.
A survey last week by the Democratic-affiliated Public Policy Polling had Romney ahead of Gingrich by 7 points.
Despite fierce attacks from his rivals, Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, had captured New Hampshire's primary 16 percentage points ahead of the rest of the field on Tuesday to go two-for-two at the start of the Republican nomination race after his narrow victory in Iowa's caucuses a week earlier.
The New Hampshire victory felt "like Christmas Day," Romney told reporters as his plane left the state for South Carolina.
Romney's campaign added to the other contenders' worries by announcing he had raised $24 million (15 million pound) in the last three months of 2011, just hours after his victory in New Hampshire. That haul will almost certainly far outstrip the war chests of any of the party's other presidential contenders.
Romney has led in polls in the southern state, but could face a tougher time convincing its many Christian conservatives and those hit hard by the economic downturn that he is their best bet to defeat Obama.
He finished toward the back of the pack in the state's primary in 2008, when Arizona Senator John McCain became the Republican nominee. "With regards to South Carolina, last time I came in fourth. Our team recognizes this is going to be a challenge," Romney said.
In his narrow win in Iowa, Romney's Mormon faith was a stumbling block for some evangelical Christians, who also make up a large percentage of the South Carolina electorate.
FIGHTING WITHIN THE PARTY
Trying desperately to stop Romney, his rivals have blasted him as a heartless corporate raider who enjoyed cutting jobs while amassing a fortune as a private equity executive, and have assailed him as not being a true conservative.
"The issue is ultimately going to be between a Reagan conservative and a Massachusetts moderate, and I think as his record is better known, he will grow weaker and weaker very fast," Gingrich, who is pinning his campaign hopes on South Carolina, told reporters in Rock Hill.
In New Hampshire, Romney won 39 percent of the vote, outpacing Ron Paul, a U.S. congressman from Texas known for libertarian views who came in second with 23 percent. He was followed by Jon Huntsman, a moderate former U.S. ambassador to China and former governor of Utah who had focused his campaign on New Hampshire. Huntsman won 17 percent.
Gingrich and Texas Governor Rick Perry have lashed out at Romney for his record at Bain Capital - an unusual debate in the business-friendly Republican Party. Both men are from southern states, which they hope will help win over South Carolinians.
Influential conservatives have warned that the attacks could undermine the party's free-market ideals.
Romney got some help from South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley in pushing back against those charges.
Haley introduced Romney at the first rally of the 10-day sprint to the primary. "I'm proud of all of our Republican candidates," she said. "But we have a real problem when we have Republicans talking like dang Democrats against the free market," she said.
"We believe in the free market," she said to cheers from several hundred people gathered for the event.
"I certainly don't like Republicans criticizing one of our own and sounding like Democrats," Republican South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, an outspoken conservative, said on Mark Levin's radio show. A favorite of the conservative Tea Party movement, DeMint said he would not endorse a candidate in the nomination race.
The Republican infighting has cheered Obama's campaign, although it has left some voters cold.
South Carolina furniture store owner Dede Ruff, 43, said the attacks on Romney had turned her off Gingrich and Perry. "They're attacking capitalism. It's not conservative at all," she said.
John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a well-known conservative figure from George W. Bush's administration, endorsed Romney on Wednesday.
The endorsement could help shore up Romney's foreign policy credentials among conservatives. Bolton is known for his confrontational manner and hawkish views on foreign policy.
"Romney's conservative enough for me and I think he's the one most likely to get elected, and I think that's critical," Bolton told Fox News Channel. It could be a blow to Gingrich, who had said that he would ask Bolton to be his secretary of state were he elected president.
Gingrich allies plan to spend $3.4 million on ads in South Carolina criticizing Romney's business record and a group backing his campaign has produced a dramatic 27-minute video bashing Romney on the issue. With South Carolina's 9.9 percent jobless rate above the national average, Perry has pointed to businesses in the state that were shuttered by Romney's company, which he accused of "vulture capitalism".
"The issue is venture capitalism is about creating jobs. And this vulture capitalism is about, you know, making money regardless of whether people lose their jobs or not," Perry said on Fox News.
Flush with victory, Romney said he was proud of his business record. He dismissed the attacks as good practice for what is expected to be a bruising general election fight against Obama.
"Look, it's - it's going to be, you know, all guns blazing in my direction and I've got broad shoulders. I can handle that. I'm not worried about it," he said on CBS' "This Morning."
The winner of the South Carolina primary has become the nominee in every presidential election since 1980. South Carolina is also the only one of the early-voting states that is reliably Republican in presidential elections.
The weak U.S. economy has been the central issue of the 2012 campaign. Romney argues that his experience as head of Bain, where he made a personal fortune estimated at some $250 million, helps make him the best candidate.
(Additional reporting by John Whitesides in Rock Hill, S.C., Colleen Jenkins in Columbia, S.C., and Patricia Zengerle, Susan Heavey and Lily Kuo in Washington; Writing by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Will Dunham)