South Carolina, a bastion of social conservativism, is the state where backers of front-runner Mitt Romney hope to lock down the Republican presidential nomination, well before Super Tuesday in March and Florida at the end of January.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who claimed an eight-vote win over former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum in Iowa and a 16 percentage-point victory over U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas in New Hampshire, has been downplaying expectations for Saturday and beyond, with campaign spokespeople saying they know it's an "uphill battle" to win in the Palmetto state.
But with cash, organization and momentum -- at least four polls put Romney in the lead -- on his side, why is Romney cautious about South Carolina?
Because nationally he's still polling around 30 percent -- a surmountable 10 percentage-point difference for Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, both cut from a culturally conservative cloth favored by South Carolinians.
Then, too, there's Paul, who declared after his second-place finish in New Hampshire, "We are dangerous to the status quo of this country."
A look at some exit poll numbers would validate his statement, The Washington Post reported.
First, nearly seven in 10 people who voted for Paul in New Hampshire said they would be "dissatisfied" if Romney were the Republican nominee. Second, 78 percent of Paul's New Hampshire support came from those who are dissatisfied or angry with the Obama administration -- 1 percentage point less than Paul's Granite State supporters in 2008 similarly put out with the Bush administration.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who concentrated all his focus on New Hampshire, finished a distant third and vowed to soldier on in South Carolina.
Even as the votes were being tallied in New Hampshire, Gingrich, Santorum, Texas Gov. Rick Perry et al were bashing Romney in South Carolina, ripping him on everything from his leadership of Bain Capital to his stance on abortion. But pundits say if the anti-Romney message doesn't take, Romney's campaign train will gather a whole lot of steam and he'll become the de facto nominee before Florida's primary Jan. 31.
(Was it that long ago that Florida gave national Republican leaders fits because it wanted to move its primary up -- and lost half of its delegates to the Republican National Convention for the privilege -- so it would have meaning?)
Millions of dollars have been invested by campaigns and mega-funded political action committees on anti-Romney ads burning the airwaves in South Carolina in advance of Saturday's primary.
Even while stumping in New Hampshire, Gingrich told The Atlanta Journal Constitution his new strategy was taking it directly to Romney and demonstrating the difference "between being a Reagan conservative and a Massachusetts moderate, and then going to South Carolina. South Carolina is the decisive contest."
But South Carolina's most influential Republican, Sen. Jim DeMint warning that unnamed Republicans sniping about Romney's work as a venture capitalist sound like Democrats, The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer reported.
"I certainly don't like Republicans criticizing one of our own and sounding like Democrats," DeMint said, repeating later: "It really worries me when some Republicans start sounding like Democrats."
Clemson University political science professor Dave Woodard told McClatchy Newspapers it would be folly to think a win in South Carolina would follow a win in New Hampshire.
"How people do in New Hampshire has not generally had an effect in South Carolina, except maybe to motivate people," Woodard said.
In fact, only one of the past three contested GOP primaries saw a single candidate follow a New Hampshire victory with one in South Carolina -- John McCain, the GOP presidential nominee in 2008.
Talking Points Memo advises primary-watchers to keep an eye on South Carolina's 3rd Congressional District, considered the state's most socially conservative region. If Romney wins there, he will claim the state.
But if Romney can be stopped, a Republican operative told Talking Points Memo, the 3rd is where it'll happen.
"If it was George W. Bush vs. Romney, Bush would wipe the floor with him," the politico said. "But each of his opponents are so flawed, the vote is split."
Each candidate could find places where he could make a race of it, the official said.
Perry, who opted out of New Hampshire to fight in South Carolina, could have legs in the midlands region by leveraging his military experience. Along the coast, Gingrich could do well thanks to his ties to the Tea Party movement.
But coastal Republican strongholds such as Horry and Beaufort counties could go big for Romney as well, thanks to lots of transplant residents. Even Santorum has ties to the coast -- his brother lives in Hilton Head.
The other Republican stronghold -- the greater Greenville area to the north -- is expected to be a big battleground as well, Talking Points Memo said, with its votes split among the candidates.
But wins in Iowa and New Hampshire certainly put Romney at a huge advantage for the rest of the primary cycle if he closes the deal in South Carolina.
"If he comes down here and wins, I'd say it's game, set, match," Woodard said.
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