If Sarah Palin wants to win the Republican nomination for president, she'll have to do well in South Carolina.
The state's first-in-the-South primary is a key indicator of a candidate's strength in the GOP's strongest region. In a state filled with social conservatives, veterans and spending hawks, a candidate has to prove that he or she can appeal to a large swath of the Republican primary electorate.
So how would Palin do?
"It's not a clear picture," says Oran Smith, head of the Palmetto Family Council, the state's top organization of social conservatives.
Smith points to his group's 15-member board of directors as a cross section of South Carolina voters -- the last time around, there were McCain supporters, Huckabee supporters, Romney supporters and others. Now, Smith says, "they like Palin's values, but they're still hoping she can make herself more viable in the sense that she is a little more knowledgeable and a little more presidential. They're not going to be interested in her simply because she's conservative and nice and popular."
Of course, the council's board is not exactly a rank-and-file group. Ask Smith about the group's supporters across the state -- the people who donate money, respond to e-mail appeals, and are among the most conservative voters in South Carolina -- and the reading on Palin is more upbeat, but not without reservations. "She's wildly popular," Smith says. Even so, the ties between Palin and potential supporters are still a little tenuous. "I think they're not fully on board with her as a candidate," Smith says, "but deep down they would like to be."
Polling doesn't tell us much; it's too early and too much in flux. Just for the record, though, when veteran South Carolina GOP strategist Richard Quinn polled the potential 2012 field last April, Mike Huckabee came out on top, and Palin, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich virtually tied for second. Then came a Palin media blitz -- you can't buy publicity like "Dancing with the Stars" -- and last month a CNN poll found Palin slightly ahead of the others.
Which might or might not mean something. David Woodard, a political scientist at Clemson University and director of the Palmetto poll, remembers conducting four statewide surveys leading up to the 2008 GOP primary. Rudy Giuliani, who was a Republican rock star at the time, won the first three and then disappeared. "I think the glitz and the glamour and the celebrity status are always real big until people have to actually think about walking into that booth and pulling the lever," says Woodard. As far as Palin is concerned, Woodard says, "I'm still skeptical."