South Carolina is now in GOP spotlight

The State (Columbia, S.C.)January 11, 2012 

South Carolinians, be careful where you step over the next 10 days. You might trip over a Republican presidential candidate.

New Hampshire’s GOP primary offered no knockout blows Tuesday night, meaning the Palmetto State will be flooded by the half-dozen-member Republican field in the run-up to this state’s first-in-the-South primary Jan. 21.

Even Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who finished third in the New Hampshire primary behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, has promised to campaign here.

“There are at least three tickets out of New Hampshire,” Huntsman told CNN. “All eyes are going to be on South Carolina from here.”

If Huntsman follows through on that pledge, South Carolina will be the first early-voting state this year contested by the entire field. Huntsman skipped the Iowa caucuses earlier this month, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry chose to get an early start in South Carolina by campaigning here, instead of in New Hampshire.

Every candidate has a reason for fighting in South Carolina.

“It will be fun and games for us all,” said Robert Oldendick, a political science professor who directs the University of South Carolina’s Institute for Public Service and Policy Research.

Huntsman wants to see if he can generate some momentum off his third-place finish in New Hampshire.

Oldendick said he shouldn’t hold his breath.

“He’s got no organization here,” Oldendick said. “Everybody who would vote for Jon Huntsman is already locked up by Romney.”

Recent polls show Romney with about a 10-percentage-point lead in South Carolina, with former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich battling for second, and Paul barely in the double digits. Perry and Huntsman are mired in the single digits.

How do Tuesday’s results presage South Carolina’s Jan. 21 primary?

The signs look good for Romney.

One potential major rival lost momentum.

Santorum, who had been rising in S.C. polls after losing Iowa by only eight votes to Romney last week, was battling for fourth in New Hampshire, losing momentum from Iowa he had hoped to carry into South Carolina.

Battling Santorum for forth was Gingrich — a onetime leader in South Carolina, according to the polls — who has failed to rebound since devastating attack ads in Iowa, launched by a pro-Romney superPAC.

Exit polls in New Hampshire also showed Romney was running slightly ahead of Paul among independent voters. Huntsman had counted on the support of independents, who could vote in New Hampshire’s primary, but trailed among them.

That strength among independents is a good sign for Romney in South Carolina, where anyone, including independents, can vote in the state’s GOP primary.

In another sign sure to carry over into South Carolina — with record high employment — 61 percent of New Hampshire voters said the economy was the issue that mattered most to them. Recent polls have shown the economy is far-and-away the No. 1 issue in South Carolina too, and Romney, who carried New Hampshire voters most concerned about the economy, has based his campaign on the issue.

A win for Romney in South Carolina would give him three straight victories in the early-voting contests and solidify his claim that he is the Republican candidate who has the best chance of defeating President Barack Obama, a Democrat, this fall.

Romney became the first non-incumbent GOP presidential candidate since 1976 to win both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. No one ever has swept Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

The three social conservatives in the race — Gingrich, Perry and Santorum — see South Carolina as the place where they, finally, can speak to voters who culturally “get” them.

Their continued presence in the race smooths Romney’s path to the nomination by fracturing the support of social conservatives, but Oldendick said that reality will mean little in the coming days.

“They all agree that it ought to be one of them that goes one-on-one with Romney,” Oldendick said. “And they all agree it should be them.”

So look for a pitched battle to win the primary in a state that has, without fail, chosen the GOP nominee in each contested race since 1980. The speeches will be frequent. The TV ads will be tough.

“It’s going to be very nasty,” Oldendick said. “Most of it will be directed at Romney, given that he’s the winner of the first two. He’s the clear front-runner.”

McClatchy Newspapers and The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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