(Charles Dharapak / Associated…)
It wasn’t that long ago--just a matter of days, really,--when the talk in South Carolina was about Mitt Romney turning a triple play, taking the three first GOP presidential contests of the year and shifting his drive toward the nomination into cruise control.
But as voters head to the polls Saturday in rainy South Carolina, they do so with Rick Santorum, not Romney, now certifiably the winner in Iowa and Newt Gingrich poised to upend Romney in the Palmetto State.
Recent polls have suggested that Gingrich has overtaken Romney in the state, but the pendulousness of the Republican electorate in just the last few days means that the race remains open-ended, giving the former Massachusetts governor a chance to pull it out.
Gingrich’s main problem remains the unwillingness of conservative voters to rally behind a single anti-Romney, splintering between him, Santorum and Ron Paul. The main question for primary day, then, is whether Gingrich’s renewed viability will convince some to abandon other candidates in his favor.
Again, there are some signs from polls that that is indeed occurring, with Santorum suffering as a result. But Santorum insists his support is growing, not shrinking. Late Friday, the Iowa Republican Party released a statement that officially declared Santorum the victor in the Jan. 3 caucuses, after the certified results left the matter somewhat unclear.
But regardless of what happens Saturday night, Romney undeniably lost some of his footing this week, whether by way of Gingrich’s reembrace of his bomb-throwing, red-meat tossing, attack-dog snarling (use your metaphor of choice) persona; Romney's tangled explanations involving the release of his tax returns and his image among his critics as a wealthy, out-of-touch patrician; or, most likely, some combination of the three.
On Friday, one of Romney's surrogates, former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, began racheting down expectations in South Carolina, suggesting the fight for the GOP nomination would be a “long slog” reminiscent of 1976, when Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan duked their way to the convention.
Nobody was saying that a week ago -- at Camp Romney or anywhere else.
Romney remains the man with the money, the organizational power and the backing of the establishment, which will keep him the favorite in the game as the race shifts south to Florida (where cash on hand really matters) after Saturday night.
But a bolt-from-the-blue Gingrich win here could potentially do to Romney what Barack Obama’s upstart win in Iowa did to Hillary Clinton in 2008 -- significantly dent Romney’s aura of inevitability.
The candidates are maintaining a relatively light schedule, although Gingrich and Romney were set to appear at the same Greenville, S.C., restaurant at close to the same time Saturday morning.
Polls in the state have been open since 7 a.m. EST and will close at 7 p.m. County-by-county results will be posted on the website of the South Carolina Election Commission. Those returns should bring one more drama to keep an eye on, whether supporters of satirist Stephen Colbert, a native son, will follow his suggestion and vote for the departed Herman Cain, who remains on the ballot.