GREENVILLE, S.C. — Mindful of history, Newt Gingrich was emphatic when he spoke Saturday to several dozen curious voters on his way to a nationally televised debate with his fellow candidates for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
"This primary will be the decisive primary in who becomes the Republican nominee," Gingrich said on a crisp autumn afternoon on the lawn of Furman University. "And South Carolina will play the decisive role in making sure that a real conservative is the Republican nominee and somebody capable of debating Barack Obama."
Self-serving, of course, for a man who's done well in the primary debates. But also an accurate read of South Carolina's importance on the road to the GOP nomination.
Though overshadowed for now by Iowa and New Hampshire, which go first and second in the nomination derby, South Carolina will be third to vote in January. It will be not only the first stop in the Republican-rich South, but a test that's historically proved to be pivotal in Republican contests.
Since 1980, the winner of the South Carolina Republican primary has gone on to win the nomination every time.
As of now, the race in the Palmetto State is wide open.
"I'm waiting, listening," said Katherine Stone, a retired medical technician who showed up to hear what Gingrich had to say. "Where there's smoke there's usually fire. There's too much smoke."
She liked businessman Herman Cain, but she's wary of the allegations that he sexually harassed women.
She likes former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. "I don't want someone who is too liberal, but not too conservative, either."
And she's intrigued by Gingrich for what she called "his wisdom and his knowledge. ... At first I was slow coming around to him. But he keeps getting stronger and stronger."
One key challenge: She remembers Gingrich well from his days as speaker of the House of Representatives from 1995-99, and she worries that Gingrich could get too bombastic.
Betsy Edsall, a retiree from Easley, also is undecided. She likes Gingrich. "He has a better grasp of foreign policy than any of them." And Romney. "A businessman."
Iowa holds precinct caucuses on Jan. 3. New Hampshire holds its primary on Jan. 10. South Carolina votes on Jan. 21. After that, the campaign heads to mega-state Florida for a Jan. 31 primary.
South Carolina is very conservative territory — much more than New Hampshire. Thus, conservative candidates look to the state as a sort of savior should they do poorly in New Hampshire.
Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, a fellow Southerner, is among the conservatives looking to South Carolina to salvage his struggling candidacy. Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania has campaigned extensively in the state. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota also is hoping for a Palmetto State bounce.
One thing that might mislead them is the power of the tea party and Christian conservatives.
A recent poll published Nov. 8 by Clemson University found that just 12 percent of the state's likely voters have attended a tea party event, and just 38 percent support tea party goals.
"That's not insignificant, but it doesn't mean the tea party is as dominant as it says," said Dave Woodard, a Clemson political scientist.
Also, while the state has a close identification with evangelical Christians — George W. Bush's first speech after losing the New Hampshire primary in 2000 was at Bob Jones University, a Christian school in Greenville — the state doesn't automatically go to the most religious candidate.
In 1988, televangelist Pat Robertson had come in a surprisingly strong second in Iowa — besting Vice President George H.W. Bush. But he finished a distant third in South Carolina, and his campaign was effectively over.
In 2008, Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher, tapped into strong Christian conservative support to win Iowa. But he came in second in South Carolina to eventual nominee John McCain.
As of Nov. 7, Romney had the support of 22 percent in the state, followed by Cain with 20 percent, Gingrich with 10 percent, Perry with 9, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas with 4, Bachmann with 3, Santorum with 1, and former Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah with 1, according to the Clemson poll.
Another 31 percent were undecided. Even more important, 68 percent said they could change their mind.
That's clearly what happened last time. Candidates such as Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson took turns leading early polls in South Carolina, only to fade by primary day.
"Most voters haven't made up their mind. It's still very wide open for anybody," said Woodard. "It's squishy."
ON THE WEB
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow Steven Thomma on Twitter
For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington
McClatchy Newspapers 2011