Presidential candidates might wish they could follow the old baseball managers' saw: "Just play one game at a time." But in politics it doesn't work that way.
Take George Bush, the Republican almost-front runner: He's into the early innings of his South Carolina campaign (primary, March 8) while his attempt to build on his Iowa victory in New Hampshire (primary, Feb. 26) is in the late innings.
The GOP primary here in the Palmetto State leads off the Southern campaign. Alabama, Florida, and Georgia have their primaries (both parties) March 11.
The rise of Mr. Bush -- considered to be in a virtual tie with John Connally for second place in South Carolina, behind Ronald Reagan -- was unanticipated before the Iowa caucuses Jan. 21. His momentum, which many expect will be enhanced in New Hampshire, makes the South Carolina test pivotal, Republican spokesmen say.
South Carolina is supposed to be the first state to show that the South is "Reagan country," where the former California governor remains the favorite among the conservative Republican faithful.
But Mr. Connally has made South Carolina his own litmus test, lavishing time and money here to show Southern strength and join Mr. Reagan and Mr. Bush as a serious contender.
Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr., from neighboring Tennessee, has more "native" claim to South Carolina backing than does Mr. Bush, says Bill Durham, state chairman of the Baker campaign. But Mr. Durham concedes that George Bush, if he does as well in the New England campaign as polls suggest, might wash out Baker strength in South Carolina, too.
A Charleston Post and Courier survey, taken Feb. 1 and published Feb. 5, showed Mr. Reagan leading with 25 percent among South Carolina voters to Mr. Bush's 17 percent. Mr. Connally was third, at 12 percent, with 3 percent for Senator Baker, and 30 percent undecided. Private polls for the candidates show Mr. Reagan a little higher, with Mr. Bush and Mr. Connally more even -- and Mr. Bush on the rise.
Sen. Strom Thurmond, South Carolina's most powerful political figure, will campaign hard for Mr. Connally until the primary. But Repulicans here largely agree that Mr. Connally has set a goal for himself that the Bush tide, if it holds, will not permit him to fulfill.
The turnout remains a big unknown for the South Carolina primary, which is open to Democrats and independents as well as Republicans. The larger the turnout, the more Mr. Reagan's hard-core Republican base will be diluted and the greater will be the scramble by his rivals for independent ballots.
Each of the candidates claims Republican debate at the University of South Carolina in Columbia Feb. 28 will help him.
Says Reagan South Carolina campaign director Lee Atwater: "Sure, the debate will help us. Some say Reagan's afraid to debate after he didn't in the Iowa campaign, or he's too old to do well against younger men. This will dispel all that.
"We're that front-runner. Thurmond is a plus for Connally; but if Connally can't win here with Thurmond, where else can he win?
"There's no question Bush is the comer. He's running ahead of Connally in three polls I know of. Connally's going to have to bring Thurmond into the race. If they win it won't mean much for Connally; they're putting the whole thing on Thurmond's back."
Jim McAvoy, Connally spokesman for the early Southern primaries, says his candidate's TV blitz has yet to be mounted. "We anticipated the majority of votes cast will be Democrats and independents, among whom Strom Thurmond draws well," he says. "We're going to run a strong second and clearly challenge Ronald Reagan."
Says Mr. Durham: "Reagan is the front-runner in the core groups. But nobody knows how many or who will vote. Baker does have a base here. He's better known. How Bush does will depend totally on how well he does in New England before he gets here."
Bush supported Harry Dent says flatly: "Connally will not win in South Carolina. South Carolina will be his Waterloo. Connally had closed Reagan's lead from 50 to 30 percent. But after Iowa, Connally's strength was cut in half -- into the teens. Bush has moved to No. 2 by a slight margin. Reagan has slipped, but not as much as Connally.
"Reagan has a committed core of 25 to 30 percent among Republicans here that will never move. Connally doesn't have an irreducible core. The surge you see nationally for Bush is here in South Carolina now.
"We won't win here. We don't have to. Connally has to do well. Reagan has to win, because it's his first Southern primary."