MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. -- The crowd at the Fox News/Wall Street Journal debate in Myrtle Beach was feisty, with whoops and cheers for Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry, though not so much for Ron Paul.
But it wasn't nearly as feisty as the crowd that forced the shutdown of the 1860 Democratic National Convention in Charleston before it could choose a nominee, after which the party split into two conventions elsewhere and nominated Northern and Southern candidates.
South Carolina bet wrong when it seceded from the Union in 1860 and fired on Fort Sumter in 1861 -- the hall where the 1860 convention was held was burned down by Union troops in 1865 -- and ever since South Carolina has not wanted to bet wrong again.
In that spirit Strom Thurmond, who waged a third-party candidacy against Harry Truman in 1948, two decades later backed Richard Nixon against Ronald Reagan at the 1968 Republican National Convention. Nixon and other Republicans won five of the next six presidential elections.
Two decades after that convention, Thurmond aide Lee Atwater got South Carolina to establish an early Republican presidential primary, and it has been crucial in selecting the Republican nominee ever since. Many South Carolinians hope they will do that again in the primary Saturday.
"South Carolina picks presidents," said Republican state Chairman Chad Connelly in a video aired amid the Fox News/WSJ/SCGOP debate Monday night. "The winner Saturday night," said Faith and Freedom Coalition head Ralph Reed at its jammed tent meeting the afternoon before the debate, "will be standing on the West Front of the Capitol taking the oath of office."
All of which tends to favor Mitt Romney. He got louder cheers than Santorum or Paul, and Gingrich got boos when he attacked Romney at the Faith and Freedom tent and at the debate. Romney has been leading in South Carolina polls this month, with Gingrich gaining only slightly and Santorum surging after Iowa and then falling back a bit after New Hampshire.
Both Santorum and Gingrich depict themselves as bold conservative alternatives to Romney. Santorum says he's stronger because he beat Gingrich in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Gingrich says he is because he's polling better in South Carolina, where most voters remember his stint as speaker of the House and where Santorum has not done the intensive campaigning that impressed Iowans.