For the last several months presidential candidates have told South Carolina voters time and again how important the state is in the nominating process.
While stump speeches are notoriously more truthy than truthful, boasting of the Palmetto State’s importance has proven to be accurate.
Tuesday’s results from Iowa confirmed as much.
The caucuses did little to sort out who will be the eventual nominee, but they did remove the wheat from the proverbial chaff.
Rep. Michele Bachmann has bowed out of the race and Gov. Rick Perry is wavering. Perry and Bachmann had negligible support in New Hampshire, which will hold its primary next week, but Perry in particular has significant backing in South Carolina, led by former state chair Katon Dawson.
Charles Biebauer, journalism dean at the University of South Carolina and former CNN political anchor, said the jockeying for consultants and money has already begun.
“It’s all about momentum, money and expectations in the early states,” Bierbauer said. “The vote is almost unimportant. People will be watching what happens in steps two and three of this process.”
Speaking of expectations, Sen. Rick Santorum now has them. Even though he technically lost Iowa, he performed far better than anyone would have predicted a month ago.
The race shifts to New Hampshire with it shaping up as a three-way competition between Santorum, the favorite in former Gov. Mitt Romney and Rep. Ron Paul.
That being said, only former Gov. Jon Huntsman has mounted a serious effort to challenge Romney in the Granite State, where the former Massachusetts governor owns a home.
But after his showing in Iowa, Santorum must now make a play in New Hampshire and do well there, if not necessarily win, He can then bring his campaign to South Carolina, which, like Iowa, has a preponderance of evangelical Christians.
But Bierbauer cautioned against drawing too many similarities between Iowa and South Carolina, if only because one state is a caucus and the other will have an open primary.
Bierbauer spent two decades covering primaries in Iowa and knows the area well.
“Iowa voters can be quirky, but the main difference is that 100,000 people voted there and about 445,000 will vote here,” he said.
Which means that Santorum will have to reach four times as many people in a fraction of the time. He seems to understand the challenge facing him as he reportedly has made a large ad buy in South Carolina.
The former Pennsylvania senator has a short amount of time to prove that voters cast their ballots for him and not simply because he is the latest “Anyone But Mitt” choice.
While former House Speaker Gingrich will be nominally waging his own campaign, he seemed to be showing the “Nice Newt” the door and allow himself to “tell the truth” about Romney and Paul, a strategy that would benefit Santorum.
It would seem that with his win in Iowa — razor-thin as it might be — and likely win in New Hampshire, Romney could all but lock up the nomination by winning in South Carolina. He also would have history on his side as no candidate who lost both Iowa and New Hampshire has won South Carolina.
But Romney still has not been able to move his support beyond the 25 percent mark. He spent millions in Iowa and received essentially the same result as he did in 2008.
But Romney does have significant resources available and he will use them to attack Santorum in much the same way he attacked Gingrich — as a big spender with ties to lobbyists.
Paul also has the money and the willingness to attack. On the face of it, his strong third-place finish in Iowa would seem to position him well, but he could also be the odd man out while media coverage focuses on Romney and Santorum. With respect to South Carolina, no candidate has been here less than Paul.
But Paul was able to do something in Iowa that Romney was not: He expanded his base. And when South Carolina votes in the primary it would not be unrealistic for that to happen here also. By that point, former backers of Bachmann and possibly Perry and Gingrich will be looking for a candidate to support.
Ultimately, what South Carolina holds is the possibility for Romney to slam the door on his opponents or for either Santorum or Paul to lengthen the race. In short, Romney does not need to win here, but both Paul and Santorum must.
Given the results in Iowa and the platform on which he is running, the most obvious comparison to Santorum might be former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee or televangelist Pat Robertson, but Bierbauer opted to liken Santorum to Gary Hart, the Colorado senator who made a strong upset bid on the Democratic side in 1984.
Hart stunned the establishment by beating former Vice President Walter Mondale in the New Hampshire and then won five of the next seven states. But Hart could not compete over the long haul due to a lack of money and eventually lost. The same fate may await Santorum, but he has tools that Hart did not, namely something called the Internet.
Though the media may have changed since the 1980s, one thing has not — South Carolina’s importance in the presidential primaries.