South Carolina primary could mean 'game over'

With debates in Myrtle Beach today and Charleston on Thursday, the five remaining GOP presidential candidates (Jon Huntsman dropped out of the race today to endorse Mitt Romney), will campaign and debate leading up to the nation’s first-in-the-South primary on Saturday. Here is what is at stake for each of the candidates. 

Mitt Romney and Ron Paul

Romney and Paul have not attacked each other this cycle for good reason. Romney sees Paul as a candidate who takes the “anti-establishment” vote away from his rivals. Paul, on the other hand, wants the race to be between him and Romney. Both candidates have low ceilings, but Romney’s may be just high enough to allow him to eek past his competition and win South Carolina and potentially the nomination.

Romney has been recently thrown off by unforced errors on the stump, such as his comments, in reference to wanting better health care options, that he likes to fire people, which only reinforced stereotypes of Romney as someone who is out of touch with regular Americans on Main Street. His rivals, most notably former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, have attacked him for having been a “vulture capitalist.” But these attacks have not been the knockout punch, and have left conservatives who are opposed to Romney wondering if attacking Romney on his record in Massachusetts, particularly on RomneyCare, would be more effective.

Romney’s task this week is to not antagonize or galvanize people to vote against him and not make unforced errors that may cause him to lose South Carolina and prolong the nomination fight, forcing him to waste resources and treasure that could have otherwise been stockpiled to use against Obama in the general election.

As Rep. Tim Scott (R.-S.C.) said on NBC’s “Meet The Press” on Sunday, if Romney wins South Carolina, it’s “game over.”

Romney looks to be in the driver’s seat. His task ahead is to not run into the wall during the last lap of the race.

Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum

Gingrich and Santorum are both trying to emerge as the anti-Romney alternative, but have refrained from attacking each other.  Will Gingrich, who has touted positive campaigning, attack Santorum to try to bring his numbers down? Santorum’s vote is steady, so the only way for Gingrich to have a shot at defeating him may be to go negative on him, something he has seemed unwilling to do. If Gingrich does not do so this week, the race may be over.

Likewise, even if evangelical leaders start endorsing Santorum, he will have a difficult time emerging as an anti-Romney rival if he doesn’t place ahead of at least Gingrich on Saturday. The temptation may be there for him to attack Gingrich, and that is something to look for.

To date, Gingrich and Santorum have been the other’s main rival. But don’t tell either of them, for everyone except Gingrich and Santorum seem to be aware of this.

Rick Perry

With the burden of expectations now off his back, Perry seems comfortable as a candidate and has left many wondering what could have been if he were like this as a candidate when the race started. Barring a miracle, Perry will not place well in South Carolina and will most likely exit the race after Saturday. Perry will most likely spend this week laying the groundwork for a graceful exit.

Perry can still influence the South Carolina primary, though. If the race between first and second is close, Perry’s votes will most certainly come from the anti-Romney candidate, and his remaining in the race may help Romney just like Huntsman would have hurt Romney had he remained in the race.