Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum is the latest GOP presidential candidate to step into the media glare, finishing in Iowa with 25 percent of the vote and only eight votes behind former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Texas congressman Ron Paul, who garnered about 21 percent, came in third.
On Wednesday, Anthony Coffaro, president of the Aiken Republican Club, offered the strongest praise for Santorum, calling him “the hottest ticket” and predicting a top three or better showing for him in South Carolina’s primary. New Hampshire’s GOP contest is Jan. 10 and is expected to bring a win for Romney.
Coffaro said Santorum has bested his rivals in face time by touring “every little nook and cranny you can think of” in South Carolina, and is planning to visit the Aiken Republican Club on Jan. 17, two days after speaking at a prayer breakfast during weekend events organized by the S.C. GOP in Myrtle Beach. The events include a debate on Jan. 16.
“That is a very smart tactical move, because you cannot win an election in South Carolina without winning Aiken County,” said Coffaro.
He said the Aiken Republican Club is also hoping to host Romney and former House speaker Newt Gingrich before the state’s Jan. 21 primary. Meanwhile, Gingrich, who placed fourth in Iowa with 14 percent, is scheduled to campaign in Edgefield on Jan. 14. Perry, who drew 11 percent in Iowa, is revising his Palmetto State campaign tour, according to his staff.
A weak showing for Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann led her to drop her White House bid on Wednesday. The decision means her supporters, evangelical Christians and staunch social conservatives, will be looking for a new camp. Romney, a Mormon, has worked vigorously to shed his image as a moderate, but is not expected to be their immediate choice.
“The battleground remains, can Gingrich or Santorum consolidate the right?” said Charles Bierbauer, dean of the University of South Carolina’s College of Mass Communications and Information Studies.
“That is the primary unanswered question in South Carolina: Where do they go, those Republicans who won’t vote for Romney and who aren’t in that Paul constituency?”
Bierbauer said it was unclear how viable Paul’s campaign would be in South Carolina, predicting the Libertarian-leaning lawmaker to stay below 20 percent.
As for Gingrich, who dominated his rivals in a South Carolina poll on Dec. 18 with 31 percent, Bierbauer said he has likely peaked already.
“Newt is pretty irrepressible, stubborn, cantankerous and smart,” he added. “But (a Gingrich resurgence) is probably going to have to be here in South Carolina, not in New Hampshire.”
He said New Hampshire’s results will show whether Santorum’s current rise was momentary or will continue.
Steven Millies, associate professor of political science at USC Aiken, was also skeptical of a second wind for Gingrich. He said unless Gingrich, who was endorsed by the Union Leader newspaper in New Hampshire, can thwart Romney’s seemingly inevitable win there, the former congressman has little chance in South Carolina.
“I suspect (who really can know?) the default position of a lot of South Carolina Republican voters this morning is Santorum,” said Millies in an email Wednesday.
“But I think the barrage of negative ads will start soon, and they will have a predictable effect. Romney’s SuperPAC can outspend everybody (maybe even Obama), and that just means it’s a matter of time before he locks down the nomination. It’s not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when.’ ”