COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A splintered conservative vote in South Carolina could pave the way for Mitt Romney to win this week's pivotal primary, some rivals said Sunday, acknowledging an outcome that prominent state lawmakers suggested could end the nomination fight.
"I think the only way that a Massachusetts moderate can get through South Carolina is if the vote is split," said Newt Gingrich, portraying himself as the lone conservative with a "realistic chance" of beating Romney in the first-in-the South contest.
Polls show Romney, the former Massachusetts governors who struggled to a fourth-place finish in South Carolina during his 2008 White House run, with a lead heading into Saturday's vote. The state has a large population of evangelicals and other conservative Christians, and concerns arose four years ago about his Mormon faith.
But Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry all said Romney, after victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, continued to benefit from the fractured GOP field and the failure of social conservatives to fully coalesce around a single alternative.
"If for some reason he's not derailed here and Mitt Romney wins South Carolina ... I think it should be over," said the state's senior senator, Republican Lindsey Graham. He added, "I'd hope the party would rally around him if he did in fact win South Carolina."
Santorum said South Carolina is "not going to be the final issue" and spoke of the "need to get this eventually down to a conservative alternative" to Romney. "When we get it down to a two-person race, we have an excellent opportunity to win this race," said the former Pennsylvania senator who won the endorsement of an influential group of social conservatives and evangelical leaders Saturday in Texas.
Perry, the Texas governor, said it was "our intention" to compete in the next contest, Florida's primary Jan. 31, even if he finished last in South Carolina.
Gingrich said he would "reassess" his candidacy if he lost in South Carolina and acknowledged that a Romney victory would mean "an enormous advantage going forward."
The former House speaker appealed for support of "every conservative who wants to have a conservative nominee."
"I hope every conservative will reach the conclusion that to vote for anybody but Gingrich is, in fact, to help Romney win the nomination," he said.
To Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., the equation is simple: "If Romney wins South Carolina, I think the game's over. This is the last stand for many candidates."
He noted that three candidates are pursuing the evangelical vote "very strongly and without any question that works to the Romney campaign's benefit. It's hard to find a single candidate that rallies all of the Christian voters in South Carolina and therefore that splintered approach will probably have a major impact" in the primary.
Romney took a rare day off from campaigning while his opponents focused on the South Carolina coast. They also attended church services and prayer breakfasts in a state with a large population of evangelicals and other conservative Christians.
At the Cathedral of Praise in North Charleston, Gingrich was cheered by church members as he criticized activist judges who he said had made "anti-American" rulings to keep God out of schools.
Santorum spoke at the same church Saturday.