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."
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.