With less than a week to go and two pivotal televised debates ahead, top Palmetto State Republicans say GOP front-runner Mitt Romney is either steaming to victory or being set up for a race-alerting defeat.
On the plus side for Romney, Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Tim Scott told NBC's Meet the Press Romney's on the cusp of locking up the nomination.
"If Mitt Romney wins South Carolina, no one's ever won all three, I think it should be over," Graham said, referring to Romney's razor-thin victory in Iowa and convincing triumph in New Hampshire. "That'd be quite a testament to his ability as a candidate and campaigner and I'd hope the party would rally around him."
Scott said evangelical Christians will make up a substantial part of next Saturday's primary turnout. Estimates suggest these voters could make up 60 percent of GOP voters in the closed primary. But that vote, Scott said, will be divided.
"You have three people that are going after that evangelical vote very strongly," said Scott, a freshman backed by tea party voters in South Carolina. "That works to the Romney campaign's benefit. It's hard to find a single candidate that rallies all of the Christian voters in South Carolina and therefore that splintered approach will probably have a major impact on Saturday. If Romney wins South Carolina, I think the game's over. This is the last stand for many candidates."
GOP operatives in South Carolina said Jon Huntsman's departure from the race won't change things on the ground because the former Utah governor was running behind Texas Gov. Rick Perry in sixth place. Huntsman had no organization to speak of in South Carolina and so had no real chance to steal votes from Romney. But whatever support he did have is likely, the activists said, to go to Romney.
More importantly, the Huntsman endorsement will give Romney something as valuable or even more in the waning days before Saturday's primary - a chance to dominate Monday's news cycle leading up to the Monday night debate on the Fox News Channel. Not only that, Romney's standing as the front-runner will only be enhanced with Huntsman's backing.
Top South Carolina officials said Romney is in a strong position to prevail and is leaving nothing to chance. As an example, two sources close to the situation said Romney's campaign has poll-tested Gov. Nikki Haley and found her endorsement and presence on the trail costs Romney more votes than it wins him.
Haley's approval dropped to 35 percent among registered voters in a December poll conducted by Winthrop University. That same poll showed President Obama with a 45 percent approval rating. Only 53 percent of Republicans approved of Haley's performance as governor. Haley endorsed Romney in December and Romney appeared with her last week. It is now expected Romney will campaign less visibly with Haley down the stretch.
Romney's camp also sees Monday's debate and Thursday's on CNN as the place where the Massachusetts governor can solidify his hold on first and reinforce his electability message. "The needle hasn't moved much here since New Hampshire," said a top statewide GOP official, referring to the primary horse race polls. "No one is surging. The debates are going to be key, because the attacks haven't shifted the race so far."
Romney leads in South Carolina by 4 points when his lead in the three post-New Hampshire polls are averaged. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who built a statewide organization before he invested money or personnel in Iowa and New Hampshire, is running second. With the very kind of campaign bravado that proved his undoing in early December, Gingrich on Sunday predicted an upset victory.
"I think we're going to win here," Gingrich said on NBC's Meet the Press. "I am the strongest rival to Romney in South Carolina. I think it's going to be a very, very lively week—one of the most important weeks in the history of the GOP."
But what if the anti-Romney vote is again divided, just as it was in New Hampshire and Iowa?
"If Romney wins here, he has an enormous advantage going forward which is why I think it's important for every conservative who wants to have a conservative nominee to rally around,” Gingrich said. “I hope every conservative will reach the conclusion that to vote for anybody but Gingrich is in fact to help Romney win the nomination."
Gingrich said a Romney victory would force him to "reassess" his campaign before than Jan. 31 Florida primary.
As for Gingrich's prediction of victory in South Carolina, it's worth remembering his misplaced bravado one month before the Iowa caucuses. On Dec. 1, when Gingrich was riding high in Iowa and national polls, he told ABC News, "I will be the nominee." Gingrich then crashed nationally and in Iowa. He finished fifth in Iowa and fourth in New Hampshire (edging Santorum by only a handful of votes).
South Carolina has always been the linchpin to Gingrich's strategy, but he was dealt a significant setback Friday when evangelical Christian ministers—meeting for the third time this election season to coalesce around a GOP candidate—endorsed Santorum.
"It's a very big deal," Santorum said on Fox News Sunday. "It was a very divided group at the beginning. As they worked through it, they came to a consensus, an overwhelming consensus, like 75 percent of the people there decided to support me. They know that I'm the consistent conservative."
Gingrich dismissed the outcome, calling the clear-cut evangelical backing of Santorum a near-tie. "We basically split that group," Gingrich said.
Santorum did not sound like a candidate confident the boost from evangelical Christian leaders nationally would translate in time to propel him to victory in South Carolina. Santorum is running third with an average deficit of 12 points to Romney in the three post-New Hampshire polls. Santorum lost to Romney by 8 votes in Iowa and finished fifth in New Hampshire.
"South Carolina is going to have a big impact on this race, but it's not going to be the final issue," Santorum said. "There are a lot of states to come. We need to get this down to a conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. We feel like once this field narrows and we get down to a two-person race, we have an excellent opportunity to win this race."
But with Gingrich and Santorum both vying for the non-Romney conservative vote in South Carolina—and Texas Rep. Ron Paul polling right alongside him—Romney appears well-positioned to eke out a narrow but decisive victory.
The one remaining variable is the way South Carolina Republicans interpret Romney's past as it relates to conservative consistency and the private equity firm, Bain Capital, he led in the 1990s.
On conservatism, congressman Scott rated Romney at the bottom when it comes to tea party credibility.
"I'd say he's the least of the candidates running for president right now that would be considered a tea party candidate," Scott said. "The question really is, can he win?"
Graham, who described Romney as a "good man" that tea party voters ought to seriously consider, nevertheless said criticism of Romney's job-creating claims while running Bain are legitimate. "You make a claim 'I've been a great businessman and I've created one hundred thousand jobs,' I think it's fair to say prove that claim," Graham said.
Gingrich said the question isn't whether Romney created jobs at Bain or if he was a tough negotiator with an eye for profit.
"The question isn't should he be Businessman of the Year," Gingrich said. "The question is what is his character, what was his judgment, how does that relate to being president, and are there legitimate questions that can be asked that ought to be answered for somebody who wants to be president."
With Romney leading and the Bain issue hovering over his bid to be the first Republican to win Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, GOP activists say Romney's ability to confront his business experience passionately and persuasively may be all that stands between him and a game-set-match victory.
Graham said the Bain issue has damaged Romney and will surely be fodder for Obama's re-election campaign. He warned Romney's rivals to tread carefully on the issue, lest they inadvertently pave the path to an Obama victory.
"This is our election to lose," Graham said. "And the only way we're going to lose it is if we go too long in time in terms of the primary and if our attacks go too far. We haven't done that yet. We haven't done damage to ourselves yet. Be careful what you say."