South Carolina Primary: 5 Things To Watch For

Oh, hello there! It's Saturday, Jan. 21, the day of the South Carolina primary, commonly referred to as the "First in the South" primary (and less commonly known as the "Last in South Carolina" primary).

The Palmetto State has already proven to be something of a proving ground for the 2012 GOP field -- it was here that Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry realized that they no longer had a viable path to the nomination. Now, four major players remain, and tonight's result is going to go a long way in determining whether the remainder of the early primary season goes as many have predicted, or if there's a sudden twist in the plot.

Here are five things we'll be keeping our eyes on after the votes are counted and the dust has settled tonight.

1. Where does the narrative go from here?
Just days ago, Mitt Romney had a double-digit lead in the pre-primary polls. But after two debate performances in which Romney stumbled and Newt Gingrich scored, there's a real possibility that the former House speaker will prevail. In either event, the media narrative is predictable. If Romney wins, his weak week will be forgotten and his nomination will go back to being treated as a fait accompli. But if Gingrich wins, you can expect that the media will seize on a "Three Contests, Three Winners" story line and declare that the race is anybody's game. Of course, whether or not Rick Santorum is given equal footing is anyone's guess, because his result will have to answer an important question ...

2. Is Santorum still viable?
It's funny -- for all the pains that were taken to determine the true winner of the Iowa caucus, the fact that we know now for certain that Santorum was the victor doesn't seem to have affected the race in any perceptible way. Finishing out of the top tier in New Hampshire didn't help. And in South Carolina, all the talk has been about Mitt and Newt, locked in their fight to the death.

In a week of loud rhetoric, Santorum played it subtle. As the debate battles grew ugly, he chose to try to win pretty. And that's a pity -- were we allowed to pick a South Carolina winner based solely on debate forensics and retail skill, we'd take Santorum in a heartbeat. But it wasn't Santorum's delicate arts that roused the passions of the debate audiences to thunderous ovations. If flying under the hype line means that he doesn't take an impressive enough percentage of the vote, the press could bust him down to second-class status. And along a similar vein, we'll also be looking at ...

3. How strong is Paul's haul?
There's not as much at stake in South Carolina for Ron Paul, who's not been campaigning heavily this week and is already looking ahead to future contests -- especially those that involve caucuses. Still, this is the first time in a long time in which Paul has laid low, so we're interested in what portion of the vote he takes home. If it's a little on the "meh" side, the Paul campaign can just look ahead at future contests. But if he ends up pulling the same kind of percentage that he earned in Iowa and New Hampshire after essentially half-assing the state, it will become a little harder to deny he's something of a force.

4. Sarah Palin vs. Nikki Haley.
Back in 2010, Sarah Palin and Nikki Haley seemed to be on their way to becoming BFFs. Palin backed Haley's gubernatorial efforts, naming her a ""Mama Grizzly" and defending her on the stump. But in 2012, the two women aren't just backing different candidates; they're rooting for the South Carolina primary itself to play vastly different roles in the nominating process.

For the Romney-backing Haley (people forget that Haley earned the support of Mitt long before Palin offered her own), the right result could make South Carolina the state that decides the election. But Palin, backing Gingrich in what amounts to a "just for Saturday" endorsement, is explicitly urging South Carolinians to vote strategically, prolong the race, and see to it that Haley's candidate continues to get "vetted." Which of these women carries the most clout in South Carolina? We are going to find out.

5. The Colbert bump.
Stephen Colbert's super PAC-enabled presidential "exploration" -- in which the host plans on taking credit for any and all votes cast for Herman Cain -- won't actually have much effect on the larger GOP contest. Though to be honest, one has to wonder if facing the immediate prospect of getting beaten by Colbert wasn't one of the factors that led Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry to get out of the race. I suppose we'll never know.

But while Colbert may not ruffle the feathers of Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich, it will still be fun to see if his name shows up in the South Carolina results. This will be something of a test of whether this sort of satiric, election-jamming is a viable option going forward for Colbert. If today's joke ends up a bust, Colbert will have to rethink how he plays this particular game.

At any rate, those are the stories we'll be looking out for today. Will you be watching the race? Probably not! It's a Saturday, after all. Enjoy it!

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