It could clear a wide path for frontrunner Mitt Romney — or send a strong signal the race is likely to go on for a while.
Confident of an easy win Tuesday in New Hampshire, the former Massachusetts governor has refocused on the Palmetto State.
A big win there — on the heels of one in New Hampshire and last week’s squeaker in Iowa — would poise him for a Jan. 31 cake walk in Florida.
No one else likely could afford the huge wads of cash needed to reach voters in that state’s expensive media markets. Awash in campaign money, Romney already is buying ads there.
Joined by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and U.S. Sen. John McCain — the party’s 2008 nominee — he stumped in South Carolina last week and launched TV ads.
But the other candidates won’t go away quietly. Especially if Romney wins underwhelmingly in New Hampshire, a South Carolina victory by someone else could buy time to fight — and maybe win — another day.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry has conceded he has no chance in New Hampshire; his backing is averaging 1 percent in recent polls.
Reeling from his fifth-place finish in last week’s Iowa caucuses, where Romney won by just eight votes, Perry returned home. But he’s due in South Carolina today and to remain there at least through Thursday.
But he’s playing catch-up; he’s averaged only 5 percent there in recent surveys. He aired his first TV spot in South Carolina on Friday.
Last month, former U.S. House Speaker New Gingrich had the inside track there. The former Georgia congressman led Romney, the runner-up, by an average of nearly 15 percentage points.
But — stung by Romney’s TV attack blitz — he fell to fourth place in the Iowa caucuses. That momentum shift is reflected in new South Carolina surveys; he’s now third.
Unlike Perry, Gingrich is still campaigning hard in New Hampshire, but polls show his support already had slumped to about 9 percent last week, down from about twice that last month.
After New Hampshire, he’s due to stump extensively in South Carolina, where he has five campaign offices – more than any other candidate.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who nearly beat Romney in Iowa, also is pushing hard in New Hampshire, where polls show his support is up, but just to 11 percent.
Santorum visited South Carolina often last year but apparently didn’t make much of an impression; he registered just 4 percent in one December poll.
But his strong Iowa showing seems to have prompted Palmetto State voters to take a second look; he surged to 24 percent and second place in a poll last week. He’s due back in the state today.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who ran a close third in Iowa, is campaigning hard in New Hampshire, where polls peg him a distant second to Romney. His campaign hadn’t announced any Carolina forays as of late last week, but he’s attacked both Gingrich and Santorum there in ads.
Former Utah Gov. John Huntsman, who skipped Iowa so he could focus on New Hampshire, where he’s been running third, hadn’t announced any Carolina visits.
For what it’s worth, South Carolina is one of three states where Huntsman’s Web site is seeking volunteers. The others: New Hampshire and Florida.
But after New Hampshire, South Carolina comes next.
In the next couple of weeks there, one or more of the candidates other than Romney may gain the traction needed to remain a contender down the line.
Or lose it.
Senior reporter Larry Peterson covers politics for the Savannah Morning News. He can be reached at 912-652-0367 or at email@example.com.