The Palmetto End-Game?

South Carolina won't be your father's primary; a more diverse Republican base favors Romney.

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It's a blood-red state in the South. It's the home of Bob Jones University. It elected Nikki Haley, a Tea Party icon, to the governorship.

And it could be just the place for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to score a knock-out punch and run away with the Republican presidential nomination.

After Granite State voters gave Romney a resounding victory Tuesday, the nation's eyes turn to South Carolina, which will hold its primary on Saturday, Jan. 21. It's the toughest test yet for Romney, the GOP front-runner who still causes apathy and anxiety among many conservative activists. And yet, Romney has a good shot to win the state and sew up the nomination with an unprecedented string of early victories.

"If Romney wins South Carolina, it's game, set, match," says David Woodard, a professor of political science at Clemson University and a Republican political consultant. "This is a red state. It did not vote for Obama. If he could win a red state after winning these other states, it's over."

Romney, who has staked out a position as a moderate in the GOP race, faces a tough but not insurmountable challenge in a state with a history of scorched-earth primary fights. The Republican field remains badly divided, with the two most likely conservative challengers, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, pitted against each other. And since Gingrich, once a front-runner in the state, saw his support evaporate, Romney has been polling surprisingly well. At least one important prognosticator, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, has predicted that Romney would win.

And while it's still not friendly territory for a moderate Republican from Massachusetts, it's gotten friendlier in recent years. Tough hits from the recession—the state's unemployment rate remains higher than the national average—have have forced voters to look at economic issues, rather than the social or religious themes which used to dominate. The state, especially the moderate Lowcountry region near the coast, has seen an influx of new residents, including retirees looking settle in areas like Hilton Head.

"You're seeing that influence of the Yankee Republicans on the voter turnout," says Kendra Stewart, a political science professor at the College of Charleston.

And South Carolina Republicans aren't quite as rebellious as their fellow party voters in Iowa or New Hampshire. They like to vote for winners. In the 32 years it has had a primary, South Carolina has always voted for the eventual Republican nominee. And support among evangelical voters, while still crucial, isn't enough to carry a candidate across the finish line. In 2008, Iowa shocked the country by voting for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister. But Huckabee saw his presidential hopes evaporate in South Carolina, where Sen. John McCain edged him out for a win.

Santorum would seem to be the best candidate to challenge Romney. His chances may hinge on how well he can transition from social issues to bread-and-butter economics. It's something that he's had some success with already, by joining the two spheres as part of an overall moral failing of the country.

"I think he may know something about South Carolina," says Woodard, speaking of Santorum's religious rhetoric. "How does he do as well as he does, when he's not talking about what he's supposed to be talking about?"

To win the state, both Santorum and Romney will likely have to endure nasty (and often difficult to trace) attacks which have become a state tradition.

"We have pretty rough primaries down here," says Woodard. "I'd be kind of surprised if we didn't have some of those 'contrasting ads.'"

Twitter: @AlexParkerDC