For GOP candidates not named Mitt Romney, it’s now or never.
After winning New Hampshire convincingly Tuesday, Romney comes to South Carolina looking to lock up the Republican nomination.
The rest of the candidates have some work to do. If they can challenge Romney here, they can likely continue their fight in Florida. If not, their hopes could be all but dashed.
Just two months ago, few gave Romney a chance to win in South Carolina. With a large evangelical and Tea Party population, the state where he finished fourth in 2008 didn’t fit for the former Massachusetts governor.
But the latest polling averages from Real Clear Politics give Romney a 10-point lead over both former Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. And he has the backing of Gov. Nikki Haley, .
Romney admitted Wednesday that he faced an “uphill battle” in South Carolina, but that hill isn’t as steep as it has been.
“So many of the alternatives imploded,” Furman University political science professor Danielle Vinson said.
Vinson said , and allowed Romney to succeed.
“Romney always seemed to be everyone’s second choice,” Vinson said. “For many of them, their first-choice is now gone and they finally decided maybe it’s time to just get it over with.”
Not surprisingly, other campaigns aren’t ready to say South Carolina will represent their last stand, but they do acknowledge that a Romney win would make him tough to beat in the race for the nomination.
“One thing I learned a long time ago is that when people think they have it all figured out, something happens to surprise everyone,” said Mike Campbell, the son of former Gov. Carroll Campbell and an operative for former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman’s campaign.
“Do I think that if Romney wins South Carolina it’s over? No. Do I think it makes it a much more difficult challenge for everyone? Yes.”
But, Campbell said, Romney’s momentum may have put him in a place where a South Carolina loss is more significant than a win.
“If Romney loses or just squeaks by, then it’s going to be a huge window of opportunity because I still feel very strongly that his support is very soft,” Campbell said.
“There are a lot of people that are saying they could vote for somebody else.”
DeLinda Ridings, the Midlands director for the Gingrich’s campaign, said Romney’s victories in other states had been overplayed.
She said Gingrich looked at South Carolina as his first real chance for a victory.
“The race is nowhere near over,” Ridings said. “In fact, it’s just getting going. Iowa eliminates candidates and New Hampshire empties pocketbooks. South Carolina picks president. South Carolina is where the boys turn into men.”
Ridings said an eight-vote win in Iowa shouldn’t even be considered a victory for Romney and that he still had a lot to prove.
“He’s been campaigning for five years, he should have done a whole lot better than he did,” Ridings said. “We knew we weren’t going to win New Hampshire and we knew Romney was, so we’re on strategy.
“After looking at data and getting updated data, Gingrich has good standing here.”
But for those in the anyone-but-Romney camp, Vinson said Santorum represented the best hope long-term, but only if he finished well in South Carolina.
“They’ve got to hope Santorum does really well,” Vinson said of the not-Mitt crowd. “If he wins or comes in a very close second, he’ll keep going for a little while longer.
“That would then kick out Perry and maybe even Gingrich and clear the field so that Santorum becomes the only anti-Romney candidate. If one of the other three doesn’t come up and finish first or second, I think Romney’s got clear sailing all the way out.”
Former New York Times columnist Bill Kristol said he expected this year’s nominating contest to be longer than most.
“Where we’re going after New Hampshire is into uncharted waters,” Kristol said during a panel discussion earlier this week. “The consolidation of the race will be much less dramatic this time.”
Kristol said money from Super PACs could keep candidates viable longer and the spread-out schedule of remaining primaries could give candidates time to raise money and gain ground.
“Certainly conservatives are not just going to give up and say “Oh Mitt Romney got 25 percent of the vote in Iowa, 35 percent in New Hampshire, maybe 30 percent in South Carolina, I guess we just have to end the race now,’” Kristol said. “That’s not going to happen.”
But whether or not conservatives want to hand the race to Romney may not matter if he rides his momentum to a South Carolina success.
"He's gonna be nearly impossible to stop here in South Carolina," Pub Politics co-host and former Michele Bachmann spokesman Wesley Donehue said.
"If they are going to stop him, this is the place they have to do it though, or he goes on to Florida and then wins the country."