This year, the primary is shaping up as a different kind of contest than the usual head-to-head battle between two leading contenders. The race has become a wide-open contest with several strong candidates vying for first place. While Mitt Romney is leading in the polls here after winning Iowa and New Hampshire, most of the other candidates are running strong as well, investing lots of time and millions of dollars into winning the state in hopes of overtaking Romney.
While past races have usually turned into two-candidate affairs by the time they reached South Carolina, this year is different, as Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum have scored at least one second or third place finish in either Iowa or New Hampshire. Newt Gingrich, who once led in South Carolina polls, is still generally polling second place behind Romney in the state, giving him a good shot at winning a much-needed first place finish. All four are fighting hard in South Carolina in an attempt to establish themselves as the alternative to front-runner Mitt Romney.
South Carolina is a small state, with just seven congressional districts and about 4.6 million residents. In such a state, retail politics are still possible and are vital in many statewide races. Combined, the candidates are holding a couple of dozen events daily across the state, crossing each others’ paths as they criss-cross the state. On Wednesday, Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum held events within an hour and thirty minutes’ drive time of each other in Columbia, the state capital – and it probably won’t be the only such moment where the candidates intersect before the January 21st primary.
South Carolina elections aren’t just known for their brass-knuckles politics, they’re also known for being fickle, with numerous instances of candidates in major state races surging from the rear to win in the closing days before an election. Since last summer, Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich have taken turns leading in polls before Romney’s most recent surge following his finish in Iowa. Governor Nikki Haley more than doubled her support in polling in less than a month before she won the GOP nomination in 2010. Her predecessor, Mark Sanford, also came from behind late in the 2002 GOP primary, moving from third to first place in less than a month. In this race, it’s possible that winning twenty-five or thirty percent of the vote could be all that is needed for a first place finish. Considering that many of the candidates in this race have polled enough support to reach that mark at some stage in the campaign and there are still a high number of undecided and “soft” decided voters, Romney’s tentative lead could yet shift, either giving him a comfortable win – or handing the first place honor to another candidate
South Carolina’s presidential primaries are high-stakes contests where anything can happen. While the outcomes of major statewide races aren’t always certain until the closing days, the no-holds-barred nature of the state’s primary contests mean that those who follow the race can be assured of a wild ride until the last votes are counted.
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