Yes, Mitt Romney has a huge advantage in the race for the Republican nomination for president. Yes, Newt Gingrich and perhaps Rick Santorum made bad decisions by participating in the New Hampshire primary, given that Romney could outspend them in a state where most participants are hardly "conservative Republicans." But now every candidate must compete in a real, live "red" state, where cities have real, live populations, and the cities and counties are more reflective of the other more mainstream Republican states that will come after it.
Welcome to South Carolina, a state made up of three nations. To disabuse many pundits, South Carolina is not a purely "evangelical" state. In reality, Christian fundamentalists are most heavily populated in the northwestern segment of the state. They voted heavily for their candidate, Mike Huckabee, in 2008, yet Huckabee lost to the more socially moderate John McCain that year. Yes, "evangelicals" matter -- but they do not dominate South Carolina, as some pundits might think.
The real decision-makers live close to that beautiful and regal city, Charleston. The counties that surround the area make up a combination of retirees from the Midwest and retired military. They were responsible for McCain's victory in the 2008 GOP presidential primary. Additionally, current military families live south of Columbia, the capital city of the state.
The middle of the state, which is centered on Columbia, is also very business-oriented. It usually splits between the more "establishment" Republican candidates. That means that a battle for those near Charleston and those in the upper-western part of the state really decides a GOP presidential primary battle.
So who can we immediately discount? Jon Huntsman? To use South Carolina language, "That bird won't hunt." He's too moderate-to-liberal for South Carolina voters ... and they are very sharp voters. As to Rick Perry, I have come to really like the guy. He seems more human than most of his competitors. But this will likely be his last stand, with money running low and no natural base in South Carolina.
Ron Paul, who in terms of political doctrine is the hero to many, will not survive the more sober and realistic South Carolina electorate. He will drop, and that will leave a solid yet undetermined percent of South Carolina Republican voters who will be ready to vote for someone who is not the "establishment candidate."
Ultimately, this race will turn into a bloodbath. With two national debates wedged into less than two weeks of campaigning, the slightest phrase could change public sentiment. And the candidates altogether have purchased close to $8 million in advertising in this very short window. That means that South Carolina will be overwhelmed with messages -- both good and bad.
It really all boils down to this: If Mitt Romney can make himself less cold, less plastic, more human, less wealthy, more caring and more genuine, he can win South Carolina and the rest of the Southern states. If not, he will face some degree of a real threat in South Carolina. And, of greater importance, he will have a hard time getting Republicans in critical swing states such as Florida, North Carolina and Virginia motivated to turn out at the numbers he needs to defeat President Obama, should Romney become the nominee.
Not that Gingrich is warm and fuzzy. In fact, surveys show that Santorum and Perry both score higher on the "likeability" scale. But at this point, that really does not matter. The presidential nomination usually goes to the individual who wants it the most. Gingrich is now acting and spending like he really wants the job. But Romney has been doing the same for four years. The real question is whether a guy who got his act together in the 11th hour can defeat a man who has been ready for years. The answer will come in a real, live big primary ... South Carolina.