With the field of candidates cut down by half from just one month ago, the Republican presidential nomination could very well hinge on the results tomorrow in the South Carolina primary.
Leading nominee Mitt Romney went into the first contest in the South with a historic double win in the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. But on Thursday, Romney's razor-thin eight-vote victory over former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum was essentially vacated when the final tally put Santorum up by 34 votes. The reversal didn't have any real impact on Romney's status — delegates from Iowa won't be decided until a later date — but it robbed him of bragging rights.
With former House Speaker and Newt Gingrich surging in the polls leading up to the South Carolina vote and Texas Governor Rick Perry dropping out Thursday (while throwing his support behind Gingrich), suddenly Romney's path to the nomination has a few more roadblocks.
In a race that has seen more twists and turns than anyone could have predicted, here are five things to look for in Saturday's primary:
Margin of Victory
If former Massachusetts Governor Romney posts a decisive, double-digit victory, it could provide the sense of momentum he's been lacking so far. And after (almost) winning Iowa and decisively taking New Hampshire, a solid win in a Southern state with a large Evangelical voting bloc might signal that the GOP's traditional base is finally coalescing around Romney. However, if Gingrich can pull off a win — he went from being in a double-digit hole to leading in some polls as of Friday — the race could turn into a two-man duel that lasts well past the next contest in Florida on January 31.
In addition to being the first Southern contest, South Carolina is the first state with a serious jobs problem on the primary slate. With an unemployment rate of 9.9 percent (versus the steadily falling 8.5 national rate), exit polls could provide a snapshot of what issues are on the minds of South Carolinians and whether they think Romney is the man who can lead the nation out of its economic downturn.
His continuing stumbles on the release of his tax returns and a quip about how the $374,000 he earned in speaking fees last year was "not very much" might eat into his leader status. Exit polls could also give Romney a sharper picture of how much of the Evangelical vote he is drawing and whether he has a chance of siphoning those ballots away from Gingrich.
Where Gingrich Lands
No modern GOP candidate has won his party's nomination without a win in South Carolina. And though Gingrich was left for dead just last summer, he has risen to the top of the contender heap, currently representing the strongest challenge to Romney. The politically savvy Washington veteran has been merciless in his criticism of his more moderate opponent, while finishing just high enough to stay in it as his potential rivals fall by the wayside. If Gingrich pulls off an upset victory or comes within a few percentage points on Saturday, he could drive Santorum off the map and survive to battle Romney through the next several contests.
Exit polls could also reveal whether the interview aired by ABC News on Thursday night with Gingrich's second ex-wife, Marianne, had a strong impact on his appeal to female voters. In it, Marianne Gingrich, whom he divorced in 2000 after he'd already begun living with his current wife, alleged that the former congressman had proposed they have an open marriage so he could continue his affair with his now-third wife. Gingrich, who proposed to Marianne before his divorce from his first wife was finalized in 1981, has faced questions during his entire run about whether conservative voters might show distaste for Gingrich's two divorces and admitted infidelity.
The Colbert Factor
Viewers of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" have gotten a good laugh out of the mockery Stephen Colbert has been making of the influence of Super PAC money on this year's election. And though his request to run for the presidency of the United States in South Carolina was turned down by election officials, the "Definitely Not Coordinating with Stephen Colbert Super PAC" has been running mock attack ads in the state and has put up some poll numbers that would make former candidate Perry blush. Could his savage satire of big money resonate with some voters and help swing the primary just enough to make Super PACs a talking point?
The Tea Party
The leaderless upstart political movement's unofficial ground zero is South Carolina, home to the state's junior Senator Jim DeMint, who is considered the ideological forefather of the Tea Party among elected officials. While the TP has faded somewhat in profile since it stormed the 2010 midterm elections, a recent New York Times Magazine story noted that the defiantly unorganized organization has "had a hard time settling on any obvious alternative to Romney." If the TP were to assert itself and get out the vote against Romney, it could signal a problem for him in other unabashedly red states.
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