The eyes of the nation are on New Hampshire, but they should be focused on South Carolina, where on Jan. 21 Republicans will decide how quickly and how easily Mitt Romney will lock up the Republican presidential nomination.
It is no coincidence that South Carolina has picked the winning Republican in every race since 1980: Social conservatives dominate the Iowa caucuses. Fiscal conservatives over-perform in New Hampshire. South Carolina is the only contest on the early nominating calendar that combines those two factions of the GOP base, in largely equal numbers.
The candidate best able to appeal to both groups, and thus the largest portion of the Republican electorate, is best positioned to win the party's presidential nomination. This year, the state represents the last chance that social conservatives have to unite behind a single candidate to challenge Romney.
That's because South Carolina marks the end of what might be called the primary preseason, the high-profile early contests that provide more value in press attention and momentum than in actual delegate counts. After South Carolina comes the regular season; opening day is Jan. 31 in Florida, the first major prize in the race for delegates.
The 50 delegates Florida awards that day will be more than the total number of delegates awarded in all three of the previous contests. Iowa's delegates aren't actually allocated until June; New Hampshire has just 12 delegates to give away on Tuesday; and South Carolina will hand out 25 delegates. The winner of Florida's primary will have more delegates than any other presidential contender, regardless of how that candidate did in any of the first three contests.
After Florida, the presidential contest will focus less on the national debates that have so far defined the race and more on the bid to win the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the GOP nomination. Six contests in February will award 187 delegates; Super Tuesday, on March 6, will allocate another 438. By the end of March, 49 percent of the Republican delegates will be spoken for. The rush of nominating contests means that candidates won't have the opportunity to change their trajectory by any means other than recording surprising wins.
The two contests in South Carolina and Florida, in other words, are the last chance any remaining candidates have to put themselves on a winning path.
Four years ago, South Carolina and Florida delivered a similar one-two punch to conservatives hoping to nominate one of their own. Romney, Fred Thompson, and Mike Huckabee fought over the conservative vote in South Carolina, handing the state to Sen. John McCain in a squeaker.
Absent a clear alternative to McCain, Florida conservatives couldn't stop him in the next contest, even with Rudy Giuliani splitting the moderate vote.
This year, social conservatives face a strikingly similar conundrum: They have failed to rally around a consensus pick in advance of the South Carolina primary. They have few opportunities left before Romney begins racking up the delegates he needs to secure the nomination. And the three remaining candidates appealing to social conservatives--Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Rick Perry--are feuding more amongst each other than they are taking on Romney.
Add it all up, and South Carolina becomes the critical moment in the race, one in which social conservatives either define their Romney alternative or stubbornly resolve to remain hopelessly splintered.
"South Carolina will define the length of the contest for delegates more than any other state," said Jim Dyke, a longtime GOP strategist who is based in South Carolina and is unaffiliated with a campaign this year. "A decent showing by Romney will make it possible but difficult for contenders to get a foothold, and a win by Romney will vacuum seal the nomination."
At the moment, there is no clear favorite in the South Carolina race. Gingrich led the most recent polls, although all were taken in December, when his popularity was at its zenith. But there are several indications that Santorum has overtaken the cratering Gingrich in private polling.
A pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future, has ended an anti-Gingrich advertisement and is reevaluating which candidate it targets next, according to a source with knowledge of the internal debate. Santorum or Perry may be the next targets.
And Perry aides have begun assailing Santorum over his past support for earmark-laden legislation. "There will be an earmark debate with Santorum," Katon Dawson, a top Perry advisor in South Carolina, said when asked to assess the state of the race. "Does the conservative movement really want a camouflaged moderate [establishment] nominee, or a full-blooded conservative to take the fight to the American people?"
Even the temporarily convivial marriage of convenience between Gingrich and Santorum--one convinced that Romney unfairly brought his Iowa chances down, the other convinced that he came close enough to a tie in Iowa to claim equal status with Romney--seems on the verge of fraying.
On Laura Ingraham's radio show on Wednesday, Gingrich said he could envision joining forces with Santorum in an effort to define Romney. "I mean, Rick and I have a 20-year friendship; we are both rebels, we both came into this business as reformers; we both dislike deeply the degree to which the establishment [that] sells out the American people," Gingrich said.
But by Thursday, Gingrich redefined that partnership, calling Santorum a "junior partner" in the welfare reform battles of the 1990s, at a town hall in Plymouth, N.H.
For a brief moment on Tuesday night, when Michele Bachmann's path forward ended and Perry returned to Texas to reassess his own hopes, it appeared Santorum and Gingrich would get the chance to fight head to head, establishing a consensus conservative to face Romney in Florida. But even with Bachmann out, Perry decided to stick with the race, dealing a serious blow to those hopes.
Now, the three Republicans vying for the mantle of Clear Romney Alternative are once again more closely focused on each other than on the man they hope to challenge.
Romney remains the overwhelming favorite to win the nomination. That won't change after New Hampshire's primary. Instead, in 16 days, South Carolina voters will represent social conservatives' final chance to unite behind a candidate who could, at least in theory, challenge Romney's front-runner status.
At the moment, they are doing everything possible to squander their last remaining opportunity.