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South Carolina test: How GOP rivals could derail a Romney coronation

There's little suspense in New Hampshire about who will win the primary there. The answer is Mitt Romney. South Carolina, meanwhile, could decide the tenor of the rest of the race.

By Staff Writer / January 9, 2012

Republican presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum speaks at a Republican Party fundraising dinner in Greenville, South Carolina Sunday.

Mary Ann Chastain/REUTERS

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Most of the attention in the GOP nomination battle is focused on New Hampshire right now, but the more decisive vote may be happening more than a week later, in South Carolina.

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There's little suspense in New Hampshire about who will win. (The answer is Mitt Romney, in case you've been living under a rock recently.) The only question is who will win second place and how Mr. Romney's opposition ends up outperforming or underperforming their expectations.

South Carolina, meanwhile, could provide the decisive vote that makes a Romney victory inevitable – or it could forecast a race that stretches out over several more months.

The state has voted for the eventual winner in every GOP primary season since 1980, and is generally a better barometer than either Iowa or New Hampshire.

As Katon Dawson, the former South Carolina GOP chairman and a Rick Perry adviser, has been fond of saying lately: "Iowa picks corn, New Hampshire picks campaigns' pockets, and South Carolina picks GOP presidents."

So what are some of the things to watch for in the lead-up to the Jan. 21 vote?

Will Rick Perry play a spoiler role?

The Texas governor finished fifth in Iowa and considered dropping out of the race. But he's decided to go back and bank everything on South Carolina, where he launched a 15-day tour on Sunday – and no one is happier about that than Romney.

He's making a big play, in particular, for Christian voters – the same voters who are part of Rick Santorum's base. No one expects Governor Perry to actually launch a comeback (right now, he's averaging about 5 percent in state polls), but if he connects with voters he could manage to siphon off enough support from Mr. Santorum and Newt Gingrich to help Romney to a decisive victory.

Will either Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich emerge as a strong alternative to Romney?

Or will they neutralize each other?

Ultimately, the only possibility for a non-Romney nominee rests in the faction of the GOP that dislikes him (perhaps the majority of the party) being able to coalesce around an alternative. With Santorum and Mr. Gingrich duking it out – and Perry possibly taking some of those votes as well – that becomes increasingly unlikely.

Right now, Santorum and Gingrich are essentially tied in South Carolina polls at about 20 percent, with Romney leading with about 30 percent. But polls can change fast. Santorum is still hoping for a strong finish in New Hampshire and the chance to sell himself to South Carolina voters as the only viable Romney alternative.

“I think the role of South Carolina is to narrow this thing down to two candidates, Mitt Romney and one other candidate," John Brabender, Santorum's chief strategist, told Politico. "We hope that’s Rick Santorum."

Gingrich's team, of course, is also hoping that South Carolina narrows the field, but in Gingrich's favor.

Can Jon Huntsman be a factor?

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