Since 1980, no Republican presidential candidate has won the GOP nomination without first winning South Carolina. Palmetto Staters, it seems, have a way of picking winners.
In 2000, when I was working for the Seneca Daily Journal and covering the primary as it came through South Carolina–as a liberal Democrat, no less–it was George W. Bush that rebounded from John McCain’s New Hampshire victory and ended up with the nomination. In 2008, much to the chagrin of conservatives everywhere (and Fred Thompson fans like me), it was John McCain as heir apparent.
Now, it seems, CNN is trying to convince South Carolina voters that their friends and neighbors are in the tank for Mitt Romney.
A triumph by the former Massachusetts governor in the first-in-the-South primary state has long been considered unthinkable by Republican insiders here, where Romney’s northern pedigree and evolving positions on core conservative issues have been viewed with skepticism since his last White House bid in 2008.
But, as in Iowa, Romney is holding steady at or near the top of the polls in the Palmetto State with roughly a quarter of the GOP vote in his corner.
And crucially, no other candidate has managed to rally conservatives and emerge as a serious alternative to the presumed front-runner.
I don’t buy it. When Rick Perry announced his candidacy in Charleston at the RedState Gathering in August, Palmetto State voters I’ve encountered at various GOP, 9/12 and Tea Party events were open to his candidacy. As his support bubble burst following a collection of sub-par debate performances, however, Palmetto Staters began to rally around Georgia native Herman Cain. Over the past week, as the media-fuel accusations against Cain have reached a fever pitch, the groundswell I’ve seen for Newt Gingrich has been impressive.
At the risk of offending folks with an unconventional metaphor — to South Carolina voters, Cain (and, to a lesser degree at this point, Gingrich) is the girl at the bar whose smile lights up the room, while Mitt Romney is the girl at the bar that is acceptable only after last call and before the lights come on.
In the wake of Florida moving its primary up, the vote in South Carolina has been moved up to January 21, 2012. Everything I know tells me that January 21 is far too early for South Carolina voters to begrudgingly align behind Romney as a fall-back candidate. At that point, barring unforeseen events affecting Gingrich or Cain as the anti-Romney candidate, either one of those two will receive far more votes than will Romney.
Look, I have no problem whatsoever pulling the lever for Romney in the general election. The primary, however, should be about principles, not eventuality.