GREENVILLE, S.C. -- The nation's first presidential primary doesn't begin for another day, but Rick Santorum's sights already are set on the conservative hills of the Palmetto State.
The former Pennsylvania senator has clocked 27 visits to South Carolina -- the most in the Republican presidential field. That tally grew again Sunday as he began a final push to turn his grass-roots work into supportive ballots in the Jan. 21 primary.
That attention hasn't been without reason: Not only has South Carolina picked every GOP nominee since 1980, but the state's large number of evangelicals match his own profile well and could buoy his Iowa momentum.
"If South Carolina doesn't say we want a conservative on the ticket, we very well may not have one," Mr. Santorum told a gathering of the Greenville County Republican Party, urging them to "coalesce, don't divide."
Aiming to shore up support from that coveted demographic, the campaign unveiled a high-profile endorsement here: Christian conservative activist Gary Bauer threw his backing behind Mr. Santorum, comparing his fiscal and social stances to President Ronald Reagan.
"The senator knows, and you know, that our liberty comes from God," said Mr. Bauer, himself a former GOP presidential contender. "The senator believes that if you're going to have a strong America, you've got to have strong families and strong values, and that you have to welcome all of our children into the world and protect them."
Mr. Bauer's announcement is the first of what is expected to be several endorsements for Mr. Santorum as attention shifts from Tuesday's New Hampshire primary to the country's first Southern contest.
Campaign aides said the support shows a trend of national conservative leaders joining the Santorum camp, pointing back to Iowa's Bob Vander Plaats offering his backing.
Keeping conservative voters, particularly evangelicals, from splintering among several candidates will be key for any candidate aiming to topple former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. A survey released Saturday from Public Policy Polling had Mr. Romney with 30 percent, followed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at 23 percent and Mr. Santorum at 19 percent.
Mr. Bauer is among a group of national Christian faith leaders planning to meet privately this coming weekend to talk about the state of the presidential race.
In South Carolina, some key social conservative figures so far have remained on the sidelines this election cycle.
U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, a popular Republican in South Carolina who endorsed Mr. Romney in 2008 and backed a number of conservative insurgents in 2010, has stayed mum. So has Bob Jones III, chancellor of the Greenville-based fundamentalist Christian college that bears his family's name.
Neither the South Carolina Citizens for Life Group nor its national organization have made endorsements in the Republican primary, said Lisa Van Riper, the state chapter's president.
Some in this state are taking their first real look at Mr. Santorum, Ms. Van Riper said. Comparing the presidential campaign to a football game, she said residents here may have tuned out during the "pep rally" months leading up to Iowa's surprise result.
"It's like we're suddenly waking up and saying, 'We've had kickoff and [Mr. Santorum] just ran a 99-yard touchdown,' " Ms. Van Riper said.
That lack of attention to the lower-tier candidate could be seen in a November poll showing Mr. Santorum at 1 percent, said David Woodard, a Clemson University political science professor.
"He's worked this state very hard, and has built a network of conservative, pro-life activists," Mr. Woodard said. "I've never heard anyone say they don't like him -- I've heard them say, 'Can he win?' "
Campaign staffers tout their 170 county captains, spanning 42 of the state's 46 counties, as well as a recent straw poll win in a county along the state's more-moderate coast. Their explosive fundraising has helped too, allowing for a significant television ad buy set to begin on Tuesday.
Mr. Santorum's Iowa virtual tie also assuaged that concern for some South Carolina voters interviewed this weekend.
"I was surprised Santorum came out so strong in Iowa," said Bob Waits, 62, as he ate lunch at Stax's Original Restaurant in Greenville with his wife, Debbie. "It made me look at him again."
But he balked quickly after reading that Mr. Santorum supported immediate changes to Social Security benefits in order to rein in the program's exploding costs. The former senator later said those comments referred to trimming the benefits for wealthy retirees, though they have led Mr. Waits to look at other candidates.
"I've paid into for 40 years and so did my employer," said Mr. Waits, an automotive maintenance worker who described himself as conservative. "I feel like I'm entitled to it."
For Shawna Kelly, however, Mr. Santorum's message is exactly what the 38-year-old Christian home-schooler has wanted to hear. As she waited to talk to the candidate at an event Sunday, she said she and her family were so struck by him that they held a "prayer bomb" for him two days before the Iowa caucuses.
"He's standing for the things that God would want all of us to stand for, like family and for the religious freedom that's being taken away" said Ms. Kelly, also of Greenville. "I've been telling people, you don't have to compromise for Mitt Romney -- [Santorum] can win."
Laura Olson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-4254.