In the race for presidential nominations, Iowa’s caucus and New Hampshire’s primary have the potential to make or break a national campaign. A win in either of the two states can put a dark-horse candidate into contention, while a loss can damage the credibility of a frontrunner beyond repair.
However, with the slightly condensed calendar of 2012, other early states such as South Carolina and Nevada are gaining in importance for Republican presidential hopefuls. While some candidates continue to focus on Iowa and New Hampshire, several others are looking to the Deep South in particular for an early boost.
Potential candidates with roots in the South, such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee have obvious reasons to count on strong support in the South Carolina primary.
Several lesser-known Republicans who have expressed interest in a presidential run are setting their sights on South Carolina. These include former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman.
David Woodard, a professor of politics at Clemson University in South Carolina and a Republican political consultant, says the Republican primary battle in the state is less settled than it has been at any time in the last three decades. “I think it will boil down to endorsements from prominent politicians here,” he says. “I still think that [Sen. Jim] DeMint is the person to watch. Whoever he endorses would be huge.” While Woodard normally places little stock in endorsements, he says that with an electorate that is this up for grabs, any bit of momentum will help.
Woodard does not expect a major shakeup from Tea Party supporters. He predicts instead that the state’s firmly entrenched Republican political establishment will support an establishment candidate. “I think we have had an influx of new energy, but not necessarily a recalibration of politics,” he says, adding that South Carolina’s Republican presidential primary voters are protective of the old guard and tend to support winners rather than outliers.