Third GOP contest could prove decisive for White House nod
Though most people are focusing on the upcoming Iowa and New Hampshire contests, the third state in line will likely play a critical role in determining who the eventual GOP presidential nominee is. And while former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is leading in current South Carolina polling, experts say his support is soft and the race remains fluid.
"We think we have a good idea of what's going on right now, but it's changing fast," says David Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University and former Republican political consultant. Woodard, who helps administer the school's Palmetto Poll, says Gingrich was polling at about 11 percent a month ago and is at 38 percent now. He adds that advertisements running in Iowa by Texas Rep. Ron Paul have knocked down support for Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in that state and could be effective in South Carolina as well.
"He's hitting them right in their Achilles heel because people do know about "Romneycare" and they do know about Gingrich's past. They try to sublimate it and here's Ron Paul pounding away at it and I think that may explain why he's surging in NH and Iowa right now," he says.
A top GOP operative in South Carolina admits enthusiasm for the former speaker is fickle.
"Gingrich's support is about an inch deep and a mile wide," the source says. "Romney's support and operation is an inch wide and a mile deep."
Gingrich has built up a team of about 14 staffers, largely made up of grassroots supporters and tea partiers, giving him the largest presence in the state, says the unaligned GOP operative. By doing so, his campaign "has totally eschewed the typical South Carolina model and to good success so far."
"The energy right now is definitely with Gingrich," he says. "If the election were held today, he'd win by about 10 points."
But Gingrich has nowhere to go but down, he adds.
"It just seems to me that Gingrich can only play defense as this point," he says. "So I think Gingrich will probably tail off here to some degree. But is it enough for Romney to finish a strong second or to luck into victory? I don't know."
And because conservative candidates Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum are all vying for and splitting the tea party and evangelical vote, the libertarian Paul will likely come in third, experts say.
"(Paul) has a coherent libertarian ideology that sounds vaguely conservative if you're concerned about government spending, which our poll showed everybody was," Woodard says.
But while Paul has doubled his support over the last month—from 5 percent to 10 percent—Woodard says, "He's got a ceiling on him. I just don't know exactly where it is."
Charles Bierbauer, dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, agrees that Palmetto state voters are attracted to Paul's fiscal conservatism.
"There's an appeal to it, but I'm not sure it's a dominant one or else he would be higher," Bierbauer says.
Ultimately, the results of Iowa's January 3 caucus and New Hampshire's January 10 primary will impact things in South Carolina, but not necessarily how you would think, he adds. Wins for Paul in Iowa and Romney in New Hampshire could lead to their campaigns getting a deeper look by voters, he says, "Or maybe the South Carolinians say, 'oh my God, oh my God, that's not what we want' and go somewhere else."
He agrees with the others that after the first three contests, three different candidates could be touting wins.
"That's a perfectly plausible scenario. Then you could have three streaming out of South Carolina, each claiming some victory," Bierbauer says. "And it starts to become who's got the legs to sustain it and enough money and which of the second tier by then have dropped out."