Gingrich ties fortunes to South Carolina

‘The race is wide open,’ state GOP chief says of early primary

GREENVILLE, S.C. — Speaking to supporters at the grand opening of his state office here, GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich said this weekend that his electoral fate hinges on the same Palmetto State voters who have correctly picked the eventual Republican nominee in every race since 1980.

“I believe if we can win South Carolina, we will win the nomination. And I believe if we win the nomination, we will win the presidency,” the former House speaker told the crowd.

Earlier Saturday, during a campaign stop at Furman University, he took his message a step further, predicting the state will play a “decisive role in making sure a real conservative is the Republican nominee.”

Such comments are music to the ears of voters here, who take enormous pride in the role they play in tapping their parties’ nominees and in their track record of picking the candidate who tends to emerge victorious.

“South Carolina picks presidents, period,” said Stephanie Rawlinson, vice chairwoman of the Florence County Republican party. “Typically, the nominee comes out of South Carolina, and when they come out of South Carolina the winner, it gives them an obvious leg up.”

But with a little more than two months to go before the state’s primary on Jan. 21, the Republican contest here has been slow to develop — and as a result, there is no clear favorite.

“The race is wide open,” said Chad Connelly, state GOP party chairman.

Mr. Connelly said the lethargic start to the primary contest is partly a result of the fact that average voters are just starting to tune in. The other reason, he said, is the relative scarcity of the two men who have spent the last few weeks vying for front-runner status — former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain.

Neither has spent much time here.

Despite surging in national polls, Mr. Cain’s ground game here remains the weakest in the field, Mr. Connelly said.

Lack of face time with Mr. Romney and Mr. Cain for South Carolina Republicans has opened the door for some of the two front-runners’ GOP rivals to try to woo the party’s conservative base. That base, insiders say, is as splintered here as it is elsewhere in the country, with conservatives split over who might be the best alternative to Mr. Romney.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania apparently has logged more time retail-politicking here than any other candidate, Mr. Connelly said.

Mr. Gingrich and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota are also familiar faces, while Rick Perry is upping his time here and has run campaign advertisements. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas has a good ground game, but has made few stops here, Mr. Connelly said.

“The voters here in our primary are very personal and have high expectations of seeing you. A lot of them expect to meet you,” Mr. Connelly said. “If they haven’t heard about you coming around, or there is no event where they are meeting you, they are probably not going to support you.”

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., Mr. Romney, Mr. Cain, Mr. Paul, Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Santorum, Mr. Perry and Mrs. Bachmann all converged on Wofford College in Spartanburg on Saturday night for 90-minute televised debate.

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