Battleground South Carolina

Prepare for a wild ride until the last votes are counted.

Slated for Saturday, January 21, the South Carolina “First in the South" Republican Presidential Primary is the third major stop in the road to the GOP nomination. In a contest known for mobilizing a half-million or more voters, the South Carolina primary has become known as a freewheeling contest where anything goes. Given this history, the fluid nature of its elections, and recent polling trends, South Carolina's is a race that has been watched closely.

Since its inception in 1980, the South Carolina primary has been a key milestone on the path to the Republican nomination. While some candidates who won the earlier Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary have gone on to lose their nomination bids, each nominee since 1980 has won South Carolina. The state’s Republicans are proud of this “gatekeeper” role, as demonstrated by the “We Pick Presidents” bumper sticker the state GOP has distributed by the thousands, as well as the hundreds – and sometimes thousands – who turn out at events, even for lesser-known candidates.

Every election year, the race takes a major turn in South Carolina. Struggling candidates end up making the state’s primary their final stand and quit shortly thereafter while others tout successful showings as evidence their campaigns are gathering momentum.  Those whose campaigns ended after South Carolina have included some political heavyweights, including Texas Governor John Connally (1980), 1996 GOP VP candidate Jack Kemp (1988), former Education Secretary and Senator Lamar Alexander (1996) and Senator Fred Thompson (2008). Both Bushes used strong showings in the state to recover after surprises in earlier contests.

But it’s not just the candidates who take the state seriously – the locals play hardball as well. Campaigns here are short, due to the short amount of time between other contests, and sometimes turn nasty. The all-out battle between George W. Bush and John McCain in 2000 is still talked about as the most negative ever seen in the state, with negative ads and dirty tricks being waged by both campaigns and their supporters by the truckload. These races are often characterized as battles between the state’s powerful GOP circles for whom the outcomes of these primaries give them leverage for in-state political battles, as well as helping them gain friends at the national level (assuming the nominees go on to win the White House).

This year, the primary is shaping up as a different kind of contest than the usual head-to-head battle between two leading contenders. The race has become a wide-open contest with several strong candidates vying for first place.  While Mitt Romney is leading in the polls here after winning Iowa and New Hampshire, most of the other candidates are running strong as well, investing lots of time and millions of dollars into winning the state in hopes of overtaking Romney.

While past races have usually turned into two-candidate affairs by the time they reached South Carolina, this year is different, as Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum have scored at least one second or third place finish in either Iowa or New Hampshire. Newt Gingrich, who once led in South Carolina polls, is still generally polling second place behind Romney in the state, giving him a good shot at winning a much-needed first place finish. All four are fighting hard in South Carolina in an attempt to establish themselves as the alternative to front-runner Mitt Romney.

South Carolina is a small state, with just seven congressional districts and about 4.6 million residents. In such a state, retail politics are still possible and are vital in many statewide races. Combined, the candidates are holding a couple of dozen events daily across the state, crossing each others’ paths as they criss-cross the state. On Wednesday, Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum held events within an hour and thirty minutes’ drive time of each other in Columbia, the state capital – and it probably won’t be the only such moment where the candidates intersect before the January 21st primary.

South Carolina elections aren’t just known for their brass-knuckles politics, they’re also known for being fickle, with numerous instances of candidates in major state races surging from the rear to win in the closing days before an election. Since last summer, Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich have taken turns leading in polls before Romney’s most recent surge following his finish in Iowa. Governor Nikki Haley more than doubled her support in polling in less than a month before she won the GOP nomination in 2010. Her predecessor, Mark Sanford, also came from behind late in the 2002 GOP primary, moving from third to first place in less than a month. In this race, it’s possible that winning twenty-five or thirty percent of the vote could be all that is needed for a first place finish. Considering that many of the candidates in this race have polled enough support to reach that mark at some stage in the campaign and there are still a high number of undecided and “soft” decided voters, Romney’s tentative lead could yet shift, either giving him a comfortable win – or handing the first place honor to another candidate

South Carolina’s presidential primaries are high-stakes contests where anything can happen. While the outcomes of major statewide races aren’t always certain until the closing days, the no-holds-barred nature of the state’s primary contests mean that those who follow the race can be assured of a wild ride until the last votes are counted.

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