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

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

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.

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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?

The former Utah governor is surging in New Hampshire right now, but it's not clear if he's doing so in time to score an upset (and his coming in second, over Ron Paul, would be a big upset). If he does, South Carolina will be a challenge for him. He's currently polling in the low single digits, and is hardly a natural sell to more conservative Southern voters. He also hasn't had the money to really campaign there.

But, unlike in some other states, independent voters can participate in South Carolina's primary. And if Huntsman does well in New Hampshire and continues to gain momentum, it's possible that he could grab some Romney votes from independents and moderate Republicans.

It may be tough for Huntsman to continue without as much money as his opponents, but his hope is that as the field narrows, he'll remain as yet another alternative to Romney, but one who appeals to moderate Republicans.

What about Ron Paul?

Ron Paul, who performed so well in Iowa and looks poised for another good showing – likely a second-place finish – in New Hampshire, may have a tougher time in South Carolina.

Right now he's polling at about 10 percent, about half the support he's getting in New Hampshire.

Still, Paul is planning to head to South Carolina within hours of knowing the result in New Hampshire, and is hoping to campaign hard and get significant votes.

"South Carolina will be a nice test for us, because it’s a bigger state and if we do well there, that will encourage the fundraising and it alerts other people to the message," he told Reporters in New Hampshire over the weekend.

Can Romney score a knock-out victory?

This, of course, is the ultimate prize Romney is hoping for in South Carolina.

If he can win in three consecutive states – and ones with very different electorates – then it becomes harder for any of his opponents to make their case, or to stand a chance in the Florida primaries on Jan 31.

Moreover, a decisive victory would show that Romney can win over even Southern Republicans in the heart of GOP territory.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley – hardly an establishment figure herself, and an unlikely Romney supporter – has endorsed him, and is predicting a Romney victory.

And John McCain, who won in South Carolina in 2008, is predicting a Romney coronation. “He’s going to win in New Hampshire, and it’s going to come down, my friends, as it always does, to South Carolina," he told voters at a rally there last week. 

Still, Romney is a hard sell to many South Carolina voters, who are suspicious of his tenure as a Massachusetts governor and his health care program there, his wealth, and his Mormonism. In 2008, he won just 15 percent of the primary vote.

And his rivals are hitting him hard, going after, in particular, his record at Bain Capital.

Gingrich, Perry, and Huntsman are all attacking him on that front, emphasizing Romney's ties to Wall Street and mocking his statements that he knows what it's like to worry about being fired.

“If you are a victim of Bain Capital’s downsizing it is the ultimate insult for Mitt Romney to say he feels your pain when he caused it," Rick Perry told South Carolina voters at an event Monday morning.

It remains to be seen if those attacks can have an effect, or if Romney can score a decisive victory in South Carolina (helped by a split opposition field with no clear alternative emerging) and sail on to an even more conclusive victory in Florida.

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