COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina Republicans may not necessarily agree on whom should be their party's presidential nominee. But they're fairly unanimous that the contest won't take a truly decisive turn until it reaches the Palmetto State.
And Tuesday night's inclusive results in the Iowa caucuses in which Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum could each declare victory, with Romney declared the winner by just eight votes should do nothing to dispel that notion.
"I think Iowa is non-consequential because it's a caucus rather than a primary," said Carla Hardee, a long-time party activist and treasurer of the First Tuesday Club of Richland and Lexington Counties which had it's monthly lunch just hours before Iowa voters went to their caucuses. "I just don't think it bears any real substance so far as the primaries are concerned."
"I think they eliminate candidates, is what Iowa does. And South Carolina picks presidents" said Delinda Ridings, who was one of the surrogates who made pitches for their presidential candidates at the lunch. She's with Newt Gingrich's campaign.
Hard to argue with that. As will be repeated incessantly in coming days before the Jan. 21 primary, ever since 1980, the Republican presidential candidate who has won the "first in the South" primary has gone on to get the nomination.
And just as Ridings said, Iowa did appear to be culling the herd. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who appeared the man to beat shortly after announcing his presidential candidacy in South Carolina in August, now seemed a beaten man.
He had been scheduled to visit South Carolina Wednesday. But after a disappointing fifth place Iowa finish where he had spent a lot of money, Perry announced he was retreating to Texas to "reassess" which very much sounds like the prelude to his exiting the race. (Updated at 11:27 am — Since this post, Perry has tweeted that he is South Carolina-bound, after all. So he's still in.)
After an even more disappointing sixth place finish, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota cancelled a planned Wednesday visit to South Carolina as well and was to have a news conference in Iowa. That's usually not a good sign.
Meanwhile, Real Clear Politics' average of South Carolina polls showed former House speaker Gingrich with double-digit leads over Romney. Whether that advantage will hold up here against the expected onslaught of anti-Gingrich ads run by Romney supporters in the coming days as happened in Iowa is one of many questions about the contest to win the South Carolina primary.
Many observers believe to remain a credible candidate, Gingrich must win here. That could provide some needed momentum heading in the Florida primary at the end of the month.
"Strategically, I'm not looking at New Hampshire," Ridings of Gingrich's South Carolina team said. "Strategically, I've already marked it up to Mitt Romney's win... South Carolina, Florida and Nevada, those are the three you really need to watch."
Another question is whether Santorum can, in South Carolina, come anywhere close to achieving his Iowa success.
Santorum has been polling in the low single digits in South Carolina. He does boast a South Carolina connection, however. His brother Dan lives in Hilton Head Island where he heads the Professional Tennis Registry, a membership group for teachers of the sport.
Santorum may be able to tap a vein of goodwill that exists in the state for him that has so far failed to register in the polls.
"A lot of South Carolina women kind of like Santorum" because of his stands on faith and family said Mickey Lindler, chair of the First Tuesday club who was quick to add that her group doesn't endorse.
An unscientific straw poll taken at her group's Tuesday lunch of about three dozen people was also positive for Santorum. He had seven votes compared to Romney's nine votes and Gingrich's eight. Santorum had something of a surge from the surge poll taken at the December meeting in which he only got three votes.
Santorum could be the beneficiary from Perry and Bachmann leaving the race since he would be the most likely candidate for their evangelical social conservative supporters to rally behind. Unfortunately for Santorum, Perry and Bachmann have hemorrhaged so many of those supporters in recent months there are presumably relatively few left for Santorum to pick up.
Yet another question about the South Carolina primary is just how big a roll will the Tea Party play? Presumably, the larger a factor it is, the more problematic that would be for Romney since he isn't a Tea Party favorite, to say the least.
In recent polling, Dave Woodward, a professor in Clemson University's political science department, found that 11 percent to 12 percent of the South Carolina voters surveyed identified themselves as Tea Party members. But only four percent said they opposed the Tea Party.
"That makes me think 96 percent have some affinity for the Tea Party," Woodard said with a chuckle. Another survey seemed to corroborate as much. "When we did the survey of issues... federal spending is number one. And this is the state that has the fourth highest unemployment statistics in the country. So you would think unemployment and jobs would do better (as in, being the top voter concern.)
"I think that shows that affinity for Tea Party issues is pretty far and deep. And my sense is that helps explain why Romney isn't doing too well because of Romneycare because they don't like federal spending and he kind of gets identified with that."
Don L. Roy is an example. The insurance business owner has addressed 37 Tea Party events by his own count is no Romney fan. But he thinks the former Massachusetts governor is likely to win South Carolina.
"It's not what I want to happen but I believe Romney's probably going to win," Roy said. "And in January, I didn't think he stood a chance. I'm so adamant about what he did with Romneycare. And he's confessed a little bit that he's messed up.
"But he's never told the true story about that. That bothers me a lot," Roy said. Still, Roy thinks Romney will win because of South Carolina's open-primary system which could let Democrats and independents contribute to a Romney victory.
Whoever emerges as the winner of the South Carolina primary, there is a clear sense here that voters here will have given that winner the first real stamp of approval that really matters.
Of the early states, "South Carolina is the best barometer...," said John Butcher, a financial industry risk management consultant.
The state "has the broadest spectrum and variety of people from across the country. You get (more of) a national feeling from South Carolina than you do from New Hampshire or Iowa. A lot of folks like to paint us down in South Carolina as bunch of rednecks but that's very, very far from the truth," said Butcher who grew up in upstate New York and has lived in Pennsylvania and Virginia. "South Carolina is, by far, the most balanced state."
Iowans and New Hampshirites might disagree. And, of course, it wouldn't be the first time South Carolinians and yankees didn't see eye to eye.