Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is certainly sitting pretty right now: after all, he won (albeit just barely) the Iowa caucuses and then won big in New Hampshire (and, further, saw the man he had virtually tied with in Iowa just a week before- former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum- end up in 5th place in [and gaining no National Convention delegates at all from] the Granite State; in my previous Commentary, I had noted that- coming out of Iowa- Santorum is clearly, at the very least, today's "non-Mitt Romney" du jour: however, I then asked but is he at all much more than this? That 'pfffffffft' sound you heard coming out of New Hampshire this past Tuesday evening was, indeed, much air coming out of Senator Santorum's own balloon-- and South Carolina will, obviously, do much to determine whether or not the Pennsylvanian's campaign might yet merely plummet headlong back to Earth... but I will come back to Santorum later in this piece).
Now, although Governor Romney certainly faces his biggest test (attempting to win- or at least do really well- in a State that has a strong Christian evangelical base, yes, wary of Romney's being a Mormon but also, even more so, skeptical- precisely because he was once Governor of otherwise liberal Massachusetts- of his own claimed conservative credentials), he seems to be well benefiting from this simple fact: not a single candidate who might otherwise be seen as a more bona fide conservative than Romney himself- these being the aforementioned Senator Santorum, along with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Governor Rick Perry- has dropped out in the wake of New Hampshire!
And all we have to do is go back but four years to see what just such a scenario might portend for the man who is clearly the "front-runner":
Back in 2008, eventual Republican presidential nominee- Senator John McCain of Arizona- won South Carolina with 33 percent of the vote. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee (the closest thing that Presidential Election cycle had to Rick Santorum, at least in potential appeal to sociocultural- where not also religious- conservatives) ended up with but 30% (and, thereby, 2d place)- this in a State in which Huckabee, a fellow Southerner after all, had been expected to do quite well (especially considering that Huckabee had also already won in Iowa [a feat at least somewhat comparable to Santorum's having gained what amounts to statistical tie in Iowa this time round]). What had happened in South Carolina in 2008 was that two other candidates- former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson (like Huckabee, a Southerner: thus he could, at least somewhat, eat into Huckabee's appeal) and, yes, Mitt Romney himself (who was, as is the case this time round, coming off a big Primary victory- albeit in his native Michigan [where his father had been Governor and where, as seems to have been at least somewhat the case in New Hampshire this year, Romney had strong "name recognition" that was difficult for other Republican presidential contenders to so easily overcome])- split yet another 30 percent of the Palmetto State vote between themselves.
Put another way: then-still relatively notable "I'm not John McCain!" candidates together polled more than 60% of the South Carolina vote in 2008 but it was Senator McCain who ended up on top of the "standings" (and, also, took away 3/4 of the State's National Convention delegates to boot)!
Something quite similar is rather likely to happen again this time in the Palmetto State: Gingrich, Perry and Santorum could well end up- all together- with what would otherwise be a large plurality, if not a majority, were it to have been cast for a single, "Anyone But Romney" candidate but Governor Romney would then still walk off with the big prize- victory in the South Carolina Republican Presidential Primary itself!
There are, however, two "wild cards" in the mix in South Carolina this time round:
first off, there is former Ambassador to China/former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman- who came in a respectable 3rd place in New Hampshire, well ahead of both Gingrich and Santorum (at least Huntsman received New Hampshire delegates!). Based on what we saw in New Hampshire, Huntsman seems to appeal to much the same kind of voters (moderate Republicans- those often derided as RINOs [Republicans In Name Only]) who otherwise would be most likely to vote for Mitt Romney; thus the question yet to be answered is: can Huntsman eat into what would otherwise be Romney's vote enough to keep Romney from winning the Palmetto State outright?
The problem is that Huntsman, indeed, put all his eggs into a single Granite State basket and, nonetheless, didn't actually win there; moreover, there seems to be no clear plan as to what Huntsman would be doing after New Hampshire (I myself thought he had to win the Granite State just to stay in the race!). Four years ago, the candidate who was thought to have the most appeal to moderate Republicans (however many of these there might actually be in South Carolina) was former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani... Giuliani received some 2 percent of the vote in South Carolina four years ago; Huntsman would have to do much better than this to have any real impact on the South Carolina outcome.
Then there is Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who gained a paltry less than 4% of the vote in South Carolina four years ago. Given the fact that Congressman Paul came in a close 3rd in Iowa and a very good 2d in New Hampshire, one would think that he would do far better in the Palmetto State this time round. But the argument that, indeed, "Libertarianism is not Conservatism" is rather potent in a State as traditionally conservative (and socioculturally, as well as economically) as South Carolina and, thus, Ron Paul, too, faces his biggest test of the Republican presidential nominating campaign so far.
Back to Rick Santorum who had better hope that Huntsman and Paul can at least chip away a fair number of votes in South Carolina from Romney as well as Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry. Assuming that Senator Santorum can, indeed, pick up "Mike Huckabee" numbers come Saturday 21 January, he has to also hope that he is- once the votes in South Carolina are counted that evening- looking back at Mitt Romney, rather than up at him (let alone any of the other GOP presidential contenders!). In any event, even if Romney wins the Palmetto State, Santorum has to then still come in a close 2nd, if only to thereafter be seen as the "anti-Romney" conservative keeping Romney "honest" as regards the political desires of those sociocultural conservatives Santorum seems to most want to represent as the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination continues to go forward.
Meanwhile, for Rick Perry, South Carolina simply has to be seen as- at the very least- "Perry's Last Stand". If, say, Ron Paul bests Governor Perry (regardless of where the Texan ultimately places in the Palmetto State results), Perry's Texas-style conservatism will be clearly seen to have been of no avail and he is, likely, then out. As for Newt Gingrich, it's all about the placing for him: finishing 2d is, of course, great... finishing 5th, however, is likely his campaign's "death warrant" (unless Gingrich simply wants to be the Republican equivalent of Democrat Dennis Kucinich the rest of the way!)... finishing somewhere in between, well: who knows?
All in all, South Carolina will answer several key questions that remain unanswered even after both Iowa and New Hampshire: can Mitt Romney- despite being a Mormon of whom there is (however sad to say) more than a little suspicion among many traditional Christian conservatives and besides his having had to, at least at one time, moderate his politics in order to be elected Governor of, let alone simply govern, Massachusetts now nearly a decade ago- keep his Primary/caucus winning streak alive?
Who will- regardless of whether Romney wins the Palmetto State or not- emerge as the champion of those still not "sold" on Governor Romney as the Grand Old Party's nominee (for whatever reason)?: will it be Senator Santorum? Governor Perry? Speaker Gingrich?
And what will Jon Huntsman's role in all this now be?: spoiler of an otherwise potential Romney victory? or was Huntsman just a New Hampshire-based 'mini-phenomenon'- for the past couple months he was spending all his time campaigning up there- that simply doesn't play at all well anywhere else?...
and, finally, how well- or not- will Congressman Paul do? Can he, indeed, demonstrate that his libertarian vision for the Presidency is still a viable option for Republicans in a State not all that friendly to it (at least as compared to Iowa and New Hampshire)? To whom do those of the 'Tea Party' in the Palmetto State turn?: are they now sold on (or at least, however begrudgingly, accepting of) a Romney vs, Obama 'showdown' come November? or are they still looking for someone else to better carry their banner and, thereby, continue to advance their cause?
All I can now say is: stay tuned!