01/13/2012 09:22 am ET Updated Mar 14, 2012

Mitt's the One, But Could a Credible Contender Emerge in South Carolina?

I hate braggarts. You know, those people that say, 'I told you so'? But from the second I saw that gorgeous Mitt in his first debate, I knew he would be the Republican nominee. (Don't believe me? Check my twitter feed: @melaniebatley.)

This is not a piece about my amazing powers of prediction. Actually, it's an article about how little any 'political expert' knows about what will happen in the next phase of this exciting presidential race.

Tell me one person who predicted the Bachmann, then the Gingrich, then the Santorum surges. In life, as in politics, luck can be everything. The thing about any horse race is finding the one who has the luck, the timing and the talent on their side.

My answer is Romney.

Mitt Romney is the only candidate that doesn't have to run on a whim and a prayer. He looks presidential, he acts presidential, and he's the only one that has even the slightest hope of defeating Obama.

As a result, the knives are out. After his wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, all eyes are on the South Carolina primary on January 21st, where the crowded field of conservative Republicans are pinning their hopes on becoming credible contenders. New attacks on Romney's business record started in the final debate on Sunday in New Hampshire and continued into the last hours of the primary. It doesn't seem that they had any impact, but it was a preview of what's to come.

A fresh onslaught of attack ads against Romney are inevitable. The problem for his rivals is that the attacks they've come up with so far don't seem too awful. Screaming about Romney supporting 'leveraged buyouts' does successfully link him to the waft of Wall Street, but beyond that is too vague for the average person to get worked up about. In the end, I suspect attacks will only just play into the hands of Obama in the general election.

Point is, even if Paul, Gingrich, Santorum, Perry and Huntsman increase their margins in South Carolina, they are broadly fighting for the same piece of the very conservative pie. Paul achieved an unexpectedly strong second-place result in New Hampshire. Then again, his libertarian bent probably won't particularly resonate with southern conservatives, and he still has to contend with supporters on the right that the other candidates are fighting for. Regardless, he simply doesn't appeal to a broad enough section of the Republican party to be a viable candidate against Obama.

Gingrich? Well, it's admirable that he stands as the man of ideas. And there's something attractive about a guy with so much political experience in Washington. But that was then and this is now. Does he engender a warm feeling from the American public? I would say no. Does he seem to have the stature to unseat a sitting President? Again, I would say no. He's a great attack dog to cast doubt on the record of Obama but in the minds of most, his brand is outdated.

Santorum may appeal to conservatives in South Carolina, but his results in New Hampshire don't give him the image of a winner. Plus he has baggage. His opinions on gays and contraception are simply out of step with most voters. If he does well in South Carolina, he can thank southern evangelical Christian conservatives, but he shouldn't expect his campaign to generate national appeal.

What about Perry? He's run a risky strategy. He's chosen to focus on competing in South Carolina, eliminating himself from earlier races. That comes at a price. Perry is not the name cemented in people's minds. He has a conservative record that fits naturally with South Carolinians, but perhaps his absence from earlier voting battles will undermine people's knowledge and, ultimately confidence, in him. Then again, if he's really concentrated all his resources there, maybe he has a chance of pulling off a Perry surge?

That leaves us with Huntsman. I think South Carolina will be his strongest and last opportunity to mount a convincing campaign. And if there is any hope for his continuing candidacy, he must come second. Still, in such a crowded race, it's hard to see how he could pull off a Romney upset in the longterm.

For the most part, South Carolina Republicans are true social conservatives, so it's not natural Romney territory and he shouldn't expect to achieve the commanding numbers he did in New Hampshire. Still, it's hard to see how anyone will unseat Romney's frontrunner status at this stage. The question will be whether Romney will face a viable challenge in future primaries, or whether he can wrap up his nomination in this contest and leave his rivals in the dust.

The winner of the South Carolina primary has become the nominee in every presidential election since 1980, so either way, the results of this primary will be a watershed moment. Let's see what the people of South Carolina decide.