COLUMBIA, SC — If this state is the last stand for the candidates who are not Mitt Romney, then South Carolina’s third Congressional District is the Alamo.
Watch what happens in the third, which covers South Carolina’s upper northwest. If Mitt Romney wins that district — which South Carolina observers call the state’s most socially-conservative — the battle is over, and Romney will win South Carolina.
In short, if they can’t stop Romney in the third, they probably can’t stop him.
In 2008, Mike Huckabee won the third even as he lost to John McCain in the primary. (Romney did best in the First and Second Districts, a strip along the coast and through the center of the state where he came in second to McCain.) The third is an area that one senior Republican operative in South Carolina told me is the exact kind of place that Romney can be stopped, if he can be stopped at all.
And in the Palmetto State these days, the idea that Romney can be stopped at all is sounding far-fetched, if you believe the polls and observers on the ground. Back when I first came down to South Carolina this summer, people here were talking about Romney’s infrastructure and the fact that the field was split against him.
Half a year later, those dynamics still hold true. Romney — like McCain in ‘08 — is facing a crowded field of opponents attacking him for not being conservative enough and no candidate has broken out as the true alternative. It’s not that Romney couldn’t have a hard time in South Carolina, it’s just there’s really no one around to seriously give him one when the voting starts.
“If it was George W. Bush vs. Romney, Bush would wipe the floor with him,” the operative said. “But each of his opponents are so flawed, the vote is split [among them.]”
That said, there are places in South Carolina where each candidate can perhaps make it a race. Rick Perry, who decided to skip New Hampshire and fight in South Carolina despite his terrible result in Iowa, could find a footing in the midlands region, where he can leverage his military experience among active duty and veterans there. Out on the coast, where McCain made his big stand in 2008, observers say Gingrich is poised to do well thanks to his deep ties with the tea party.
Coastal Republican strongholds (think Horry and Beaufort) could be a big part of Romney’s total, too, thanks to the fact that many of the new transplant residents in places like Myrtle Beach are displaced northerners. It’s also a place where Romney’s Mormon faith — which national reporters still insist will be a factor, despite the insistence of South Carolinians who say it’s not going to be a problem — is least likely to play a role. Myrtle Beach voters have sent state Rep. Allen Clemmons (R) to Columbia since 2002, and he’s a public member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Even Rick Santorum has some claim to the coast, with his brother residing in Hilton Head.
The other Republican stronghold in this deep red state — the greater Greenville area to the north — is expected to be a big battleground as well, as it always is. But observers I spoke too said they expect the vote there to be split.
Each of the top tier candidates has a robust operation and expertise on the ground to pull out their vote. Gingrich allies are ready to bombard the state with millions in negative ads aimed right at Mitt. So, despite the current polls, there’s a chance for a reset here.
The Third District, where Romney could be most vulnerable, will be the place to see if these plans are working against him. If someone other than Romney wins in the Third, primary night has a chance to be interesting. If Romney wins there despite being a moderate Yankee governor and a Mormon to boot, he’s probably going to win it all.