Who will South Carolina elect on Saturday? Mitt Romney despite his reluctance to declare his tax returns or Newt Gingrich despite his marital problems, and revelations?
That’s a crucial question, as South Carolina prides itself in picking the eventual Republican presidential nominee, not just a primary winner, since 1980 at least.
Former Massachusetts governor Romney is still holding on to the top position in opinion polls, but only so. Former Speaker Gingrich is surging, and may even win.
Congressman Ron Paul and former senator Rick Santorum are up-and-down third and fourth.
“It’s a two-man race,” said Gina Smith, a South Carolina political reporter, adding South Carolinians like to pick candidates who can win.
Santorum and Paul, according to them, don’t pass that test.
Santorum came to South Carolina with a second position in Iowa and fourth in New Hampshire. But a delayed count for Iowa gave him victory there.
He is now one-for-one with Romney, but is not accorded the same media attention or voter consideration as the front-runner or even the surging maverick Gingrich.
Gingrich, in fact, publicly urged Santorum to withdraw to let the conservative vote coalesce to defeat Romney who has struggled to find traction with the core of the Republican party.
Santorum was struck by the cheek of that appeal and called it so, in the last debate. But the numbers are stacked up against him, making him look an unlikely winner.
Romney, the front-runner, is also looking uncertain, to his voters and himself. A campaign aide went public Friday night that Romney was prepared to come second.
While his Mormon faith might not sell to a largely evangelical Republican voters of South Carolina, his private sector experience will in a state with 9.9% joblessness.
But his reluctance to part with his tax details is adding to his image of a heartless, profit-or-nothing CEO who likes firing people. That doesn’t sit well with the jobless.
Besides, Gingrich’s time has probably come. Smith said the former speaker is voicing South Carolinians’s anger about joblessness and frustrations with Washington. “They see him as a kindred spirit.”
The primaries move to Flordia next.