South Carolina primary: Most critical in 32 years

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Since Ronald Reagan won the first-ever Republican presidential primary here in 1980, every winner of the South Carolina primary has gone on to become the GOP nominee for President.   The Palmetto State, in effect, has been pivotal in relegating runners-up to the sidelines (and sometimes out of the game) and launching the front-runner on a downhill jog toward the finish line.

On Saturday, South Carolina Republicans will hold what will possibly be their most critical primary in 32 years.  The voting tomorrow may finalize the race for the eventual nominee, or it may be just the start on a protracted battle for nomination along the lines of Reagan and Gerald Ford in 1976.

Here are a few questions primary-watchers nationwide will be considering — and primary voters here may be providing answers to on Jan. 28:

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Can South Carolina propel Mitt Romney to the nomination?

Until a few days ago, this appeared to be a done deal.  With support from popular Gov. Nikki Haley, the political team of Sen. Jim DeMint (if not DeMint himself officially), and scores of party leaders and elected officials, Romney held a 15-to-20 percentage point lead in several polls. A Rasmussen Poll earlier in the week showed that among likely primary voters, Romney led with 35 per cent, Newt Gingrich 21 per cent, and Rick Santorum and Ron Paul were tied at 16 per cent.

All of that changed, of course, with Gingrich’s “American Idol”-worthy performance in the Myrtle Beach debate Monday evening and the resulting large crowds at his post-debate appearances and string of endorsements.  Among those weighing in for the former House speaker have been state House Speaker Bobby Harrell and Mike Campbell, son of the late Gov. Carroll Campbell.  Now, a Public Policy Polling survey completed Wednesday evening showed Gingrich leading Romney in South Carolina 34- to-28 per cent, with Paul at 16 per cent and Santorum 14 per cent.

At this point, Romney’s people will claim a win by any margin Saturday is a win and count on a convincing victory in the Florida primary January 31.  A loss by any margin means he’s in for a longer haul than he imagined a week ago.

Is South Carolina crucial to Gingrich?

Absolutely, and both Gingrich and his state campaign chairman (and onetime House colleague) John Napier have said as much to HUMAN EVENTS.  An outright win or a strong second-place finish will clearly launch Gingrich into Florida, where a strong and eager organization awaits him, according to Florida campaign chairman and former State Attorney General Bill McCollum.

As to whether the stunning remarks of former wife Marianne Gingrich put a dent in his momentum among cultural conservatives or whether the candidate’s own ovation-provoking reply to personal broadsides at the Charleston debate Thursday was sufficient to put it to rest is unclear at this point.

Will Santorum get out Saturday?

With Rick Perry’s withdrawal and endorsement of Gingrich, the former House speaker clearly wants Santorum to exit because he feels it will give him his desired scenario of “going one on one with Romney.” 

After South Carolina’s results are in, a Santorum exit is a strong possibility.  For all of his support among social conservatives—ranging from Gary Bauer of American Values to Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family—Santorum was never able to corner the market on the pro-family movement in South Carolina.  Dr. Bill Monroe of Florence, considered one of the best-connected of South Carolina’s evangelical leaders, came out strongly for Gingrich Wednesday. 

Coming in a distant third or competing with Ron Paul for third place will not cut it for Santorum.  He will not get the momentum or money needed to compete in a media-oriented state such as Florida.  And remember: from John Connally’s withdrawal from after the 1980 South Carolina primary to Fred Thompson’s bow-out after a weak performance here four years ago, the Palmetto State primary has long been the “great eliminator” of presidential hopefuls.

What about Ron Paul?

What about him?  Paul, as Gail Collins wrote in the New York Times Thursday, “has pretty much written off South Carolina anyway.  He’s hoping the race drags on to February and caucus states like Maine and Nevada, where a candidate with a small-but-dedicated following has an advantage.”

Moreover, in a state where the defense industry is a major part of the economy, Paul’s calls for “bringing the troops home” and closing bases abroad have not resonated here as well as they did in New Hampshire.

But, as always, he will be able to go on as long as the volunteers remain vigorous and the money still flows—and both show no signs of abating.

So what will happen in South Carolina Saturday.  It could still be the final chapter in the Republican nomination saga, or the beginning of an entirely new one.