South Carolina voters have a reputation for respecting hierarchy and choosing the most establishment candidate. Reagan, Bush I, Dole, Bush II, McCain -- each was the establishment choice, and each won the state primary. But in 2012, who will be the establishment pick? Romney and Huckabee roughly tied for second in the 2008 Republican presidential race, and Palin was the party's nominee for vice president. No one has a clear claim.
Palin earned big points in South Carolina for her role in the governor's race, helping pull Nikki Haley out of the Republican field and onto the road to victory. "She practically anointed Haley," says Woodard. Now, the new governor certainly owes Palin big time.
But the mood of South Carolina's voters seems particularly tough to discern right now. In the governor's race, Quinn worked for the establishment Republican candidate, longtime state official Henry McMaster. In one poll, without mentioning any names, Quinn asked GOP voters whether they preferred "a new face that promised change or a proven conservative leader." He expected "proven leader" to win -- that's the old way -- but "new face" came out on top. And so did Haley at the polls.
Today, Quinn warns observers not to dismiss what he calls "the new-face vote." In hierarchical South Carolina, someone could come out of nowhere and surprise the field.
Will Palin be a new face in 2012? No, just the best-known one. But focusing too much on Palin's star power obscures the more nuanced reality of attitudes toward her in South Carolina.
Conservatives in the state like Palin. They agree with her on most issues. They are inclined to defend her when she is unfairly attacked, which is often. But that doesn't necessarily mean they're convinced she should be president.