South Carolina: Bump in the Road or Waterloo for Mitt Romney?

Breaking with tradition, South Carolina voters may be ready to go with the underdog.

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South Carolina has seen some crazy presidential primaries in the past 20 years, but none quite as wild as this one.

So wild, in fact, that Newt Gingrich, fiery former party leader with enough personal baggage to sink a normal campaign, may pierce the veneer of inevitability that has powered the campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

While South Carolina—which has always voted for the eventual winner in the Republican race—is known as a place where presidential campaigns end, on Saturday it may only be the place where the GOP primary battle got an extra lease on life.

Despite his blustery claims that a win in South Carolina would guarantee him the Republican nomination, most political analysts believe a Gingrich victory would mostly just prolong the race, with Romney still the likely victor.

[See pictures of the 2012 GOP candidates.]

South Carolinians are conservative, especially when it comes to the moral issues that tend to dominate the presidential primaries. But it's a unique state with a complex set of issues that can play out in interesting, and unpredictable, ways.

It's a southern agricultural state whose biggest crop isn't cotton or corn but trees—the timber industry, which tends to give trade and environmental issues more weight. It's a state with 10 percent unemployment, which is overshadowing the issues that would typically play a bigger part in who gets the nomination. South Carolinians are deciding the right mix between their hearts and their heads—and, for now, Gingrich may be winning the battle.

"We've got to have change," says Charles Ray, a Lexington resident who was laid off from the auto industry shortly before he was planning to retire, and now scrapes by on Social Security and unemployment insurance. " 'Hope and change' didn't work."

Ray is leaning toward Gingrich, who best shows the anger at the current administration. But it's his desire to see the current president go that is making Ray also ponder Romney, who he watched on Friday morning at a nearby Gilbert, S.C., event.

"It's all about people," says Jan Carter, an Army nurse from Tennessee, in town to visit her sister and volunteer for Romney.

Pulling coins from her pocket, she recalls a recent visit to a nearby pawn shop, where a man was trying to sell some '40s-era silver to find food to eat. (Using her smartphone to find fair value, she bought the coins instead.)

"This was all he could find to get money to eat," Carter says. "If you have jobs, you can fix the deficit. If you have jobs, people can have insurance. It's all about jobs."

Those economic issues may be the main reason why Gingrich--and not Santorum, whose emphasis has been on more religious conservative issues--has caught fire. Another reason Santorum hasn't been able to catch up to Gingrich may be labor, which is an issue so close to the hearts of South Carolinians that it transcends economics and has become a potent cultural issue.

"We just got slapped in the face by the Obama administration on Boeing," says John Waddell, a resident of Walterboro, a rural town in the state's southern low-country region.

Santorum's vote against a so-called national right to work bill still stings Waddell, a Gingrich supporter, despite Santorum's claims that he was only following the lead of his state.

Even though the allegations that Gingrich demanded an "open marriage" with ex-wife Marianne would seem to hurt him in the race, his defiant performance in Thursday night's debate may have endeared him to the state's Republican voters, who are still convinced that the mainstream media unfairly pushed Herman Cain out of the race.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul continues to build support, but has also seen significant pushback from South Carolina's conservative voters who distrust his libertarian stances on many social issues, including drug legalization.

A loss in South Carolina would cap off a uniquely bad week for Romney. That, and a slim reversal in the results from Iowa, would mean that within a few days, three likely victories in the early GOP contests will have shrunk to only one. Despite an enormous financial advantage, Romney seems incapable of putting away his rivals.