WASHINGTON -- South Carolina Republicans are belatedly embracing Mitt Romney as he closes in on their party's presidential nomination.
But in the Palmetto State - one of the hotbeds of the nation's Tea Party movement where Republican activists spent long months taking an anyone-but-Romney stance - the embrace feels reluctant.
It is unlikely Romney will lose the state to President Barack Obama in November. Southerner Jimmy Carter in 1976 was the last Democrat to carry South Carolina in a presidential general election.
But the degree of enthusiasm for Romney in the Palmetto State will provide a barometer for the Republican's ability to motivate party activists who could determine the outcome in a dozen swing states that are likely to decide the election.
Take state Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort, a Tea Party favorite, for example.
Davis, who backed U.S. Rep. Ron Paul for president in the state's January GOP primary, now has some good things to say about Romney. But his words sound as much like a warning as an endorsement.
"If he frames the debate between President Obama's agenda of an ever-growing and more powerful government versus faith in free markets and individual liberty, I think he's got a good chance of winning," said Davis. "If he doesn't draw the line that sharply and tries to tack toward the center, then I think it will be very difficult."
'It's not just about Romney'
South Carolina's streak of choosing the eventual nominee in the previous six contested Republican White House races -- going back to Ronald Reagan's 1980 win -- ended this year when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich captured the state's Jan. 21 primary with 40.4 percent of the vote. Romney came in a distant second with 27.8 percent, evidence of the former Massachusetts governor's difficulties in exciting the Republican base.
Still, that showing was better than Romney's finish in the state's 2008 presidential primary, when he ended up fourth with 15.1 percent of the vote.
Earlier this week, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of Seneca urged his fellow Republicans to get behind Romney in a manner reminiscent of a doctor calling in a prescription.
"People say, 'I may not like Romney because of this or that,'" Graham told WORD Radio in Greenville on Monday. "It's not just about Romney.
"It's about the people he will put in charge of the government. And I can assure you he's going to put different people in charge of these agencies (than Obama) and (he) will pick different judges. That alone is enough for me to vote for Romney."
Others are more enthusiastic.
State Rep. Nathan Ballentine, a Wells Fargo mortgage officer in Chapin, was one of the first state legislators to endorse Romney -- 11 months ago. Ballentine doesn't understand why his Republican peers aren't more bullish on Romney, who he says is just what the nation needs at this point in its history.
"Gov. Romney is a businessman," said Ballentine, a close ally of Gov. Nikki Haley, who also has endorsed Romney. "He's not a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants kind of guy. Some people think that means he's too calculated, but I think he's exactly what we need.
"He is a CEO who's got a plan to get our country back on track. He's not a rah-rah kind of guy, but there aren't too many CEOs who are."
'Vote for him over Barack Obama'
U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, a freshman Republican from Laurens who was elected to Congress in 2010 with strong Tea Party support, said GOP activists' antipathy toward Obama will be enough to rally their support for Romney.
"Gov. Romney's policies would be a clear departure from the dubious tactics of the Obama administration," said Duncan, who hasn't endorsed Romney or any other Republican candidate.
"I'm confident that Gov. Romney can win over the American people on the promise of limited government, defending individual liberties and a return to common-sense solutions to our country's biggest problems," Duncan said.
Other Republican leaders are, too.
S.C. GOP chairman Chad Connelly met with Romney last week and heard his speech to state party leaders gathered in Arizona.
"He was as comfortable, relaxed and in command as I've ever seen him," Connelly said. "He's a better candidate than he was a year ago. He's able to articulate all the reasons we need to make sure Obama is just the worst one-term president ever."
While Romney didn't win the South Carolina primary, Connelly noted that more Republicans cast ballots -- 607,000 -- than ever before.
"When Gov. Romney is the eventual nominee, (those voters) will be excited because they're so disgusted at what Obama has done, trashing the Constitution and pushing Obamacare down our throats," Connelly predicted.
Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon, who runs the Rock Hill school's political polls, said Romney's support among S.C. Republicans has been the steadiest of all the presidential candidates, but he always trailed at least one other "anti-Romney" opponent during the primary season.
"Romney has had solid support, but not great enthusiasm," Huffmon said. "All that said, Republicans in South Carolina will very much line up to vote for him over Barack Obama."