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South Carolina gantlet awaits Iowa and New Hampshire winners

With just four days left until the Jan. 3 caucuses, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul are running neck and neck, with Romney at 23 percent among likely caucus-goers and Paul at 21 percent, according to an NBC/Marist poll. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.

 

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- In an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd this week, Newt Gingrich said he did not need to win nominating contests in Iowa or New Hampshire as long as he won South Carolina.

“You have to be in the top three or four,” said Gingrich. “I would like to come in second in New Hampshire.” But, he continued, “You need to win South Carolina. Everyone who has won South Carolina has been the nominee."

And while Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond seemed to downplay that prediction, saying “no state is a must-win,” a memo obtained by Real Clear Politics today belies that sentiment.

The memo, written by new members of his Iowa team, said Gingrich is positioned to “perform consistently well in both Iowa and New Hampshire and then win in South Carolina and Florida.”

While every eventual Republican nominee since 1980 has in fact won South Carolina's primary, Gingrich is seeking to accomplish what no other candidate in the 30-year history of modern primaries has: a South Carolina victory after losses in the first two states.

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The former House speaker stands in fifth place in Iowa, according to the NBC/Marist Iowa poll released Friday. And some Palmetto State Republicans doubt that Gingrich would be able to achieve victory here after losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, even in spite of the fluidity of the Republican field.

“No one has gone 0-for-2 and won South Carolina,” said Warren Tompkins, a longtime strategist here who worked on Mitt Romney’s 2008 campaign and today announced he would be advising the campaign on a volunteer basis.

One factor is the boost in fundraising and buzz brought on by an Iowa or New Hampshire victory. If Gingrich doesn’t have that momentum coming in to South Carolina, the path to a win for Mitt Romney here becomes clearer, some experts say.

Hammond countered: "The must-win is the nomination."

PUTTING IT ALL ON PALMETTO

Past candidates who downplay early states have done so at their peril, noted former South Carolina Republican Party chairwoman Karen Floyd, citing Rudy Giuliani’s Florida-centric bid in 2008 and Romney’s decision that year to pull out of South Carolina after New Hampshire.

“When they decided not to play in some of the carve-out states, they lost the earned media,” she said.

That earned media – cable chatter, word-of-mouth, online buzz -- could compensate somewhat for Gingrich’s inability to match his opponents’ big ad buys. A lack of that energy, however, could be problematic in South Carolina, a state driven more by media than retail politics.

“It’s not like suddenly he’s going to be able to spend a ton on TV ads,” said one unaligned national consultant who worked for Romney’s 2008 campaign and is familiar with South Carolina politics.

Gingrich’s top-four threshold might not be enough to quell a perception that he’s running out of steam, said Jim Dyke, a South Carolina-based national strategist.

“I think if he does not do very well -- one or two -- in Iowa, he’s going to have a further sinking, which is going to make it more difficult in New Hampshire and it’s going to make it extremely difficult in South Carolina," Dyke said.

But Clemson political science professor and Republican consultant David Woodard said he would not count Gingrich out here, saying he’s been impressed with the former speaker’s “unconventional” presence.

“He is working something that the others aren’t doing and it’s primarily this social media kind of thing,” he said, noting the volume of emails and Facebook bulletins he receives from Gingrich supporters (Woodard added the Bachmann campaign is also reaching him through social media).

S.C. FOR THE MASSACHUSETTS MORMON?

While Romney’s campaign has been setting low Iowa expectations for months, he is now leading some polls there, including the NBC/Marist poll, which showed him at 23 percent. He is garnering larger, more enthusiastic crowds than his campaign said they had anticipated.

That atmosphere is leading some observers in South Carolina to say he could ride a stronger-than-expected showing in Iowa, plus a New Hampshire win, to a victory here.

“They have done a masterful job of managing expectations,” Dyke said, adding that an outright win in Iowa  “would really solidify the argument that he’s the candidate who can win everywhere.”

That argument could be strengthened if Romney wins socially conservative South Carolina, some of whose voters balked at his Mormonism in 2008, according to the national consultant who worked on Romney’s campaign that year.

“You’re the Mormon from Massachusetts who flip flopped on social issues who just won in South Carolina. It beats the expectations. No one would expect it," the consultant said.

Dyke drew a parallel between Romney and 2008 nominee John McCain, whose record did not jibe perfectly with voters here but who eked out a 33 percent victory over Mike Huckabee, who took most of the Evangelical vote.

“[McCain’s] record wasn’t necessarily tailor made for this state, whether it was immigration or judges, but there was a recognition that he was the best candidate for the fall,” Dyke said.

Even if Romney doesn’t win in Iowa, he still has the ability to sustain his campaign without an Iowa fundraising boost.

“These other guys have to win states in order to stay alive,” the consultant said. “Mitt Romney doesn’t have to run a marathon, he just has to make sure that his terminal disease isn’t as fast as the other guys.”

Plus, Romney can invest in South Carolina’s relatively inexpensive media markets (he made a $230,000 broadcast ad buy here on Thursday) while simultaneously buying some of Florida’s much pricier airtime, the national consultant said.

“Florida is a must-win. And South Carolina is the perfect setup for it. Last time, they got cold feet [in South Carolina] and pulled the plug and they probably saved about half a million dollars. In the overall scheme of what that campaign spent, they spent more than that on rock climbing walls for the Iowa straw poll.”

While the Romney campaign isn’t investing in as much gym equipment this time around, they do have a low-key, but persistent, presence in South Carolina. In addition to holding a tele-town hall with voters here on Monday, Romney has a robo call, which Floyd received, in which he says he intends to “earn the trust of every person in the state of South Carolina,” according to Floyd.

Plus, in addition to Tompkins, Romney also signed on Luke Byars as an unpaid adviser – adding bulk to his three-person South Carolina team.

Romney’s sotto voce presence here, gradually crescendoing, could lay the groundwork for a Romney win in South Carolina -- but the persistence of a few other candidates past Iowa could complicate that calculus.

THE LONG SHOT AND THE WILD CARD

Rick Santorum’s recent Iowa surge (he’s in third at 15 percent in the NBC poll) has some observers here drawing comparisons to Mike Huckabee. the former Arkansas governor who campaigned, like Santorum, mostly on social issues. After winning in Iowa, Huckabee narrowly lost to McCain in South Carolina with 30 percent of the vote.

“I think Santorum could be the next Huckabee, I really do,” Woodard said, adding that the difference between 2008 and now is that “neither of the two frontrunners are a McCain. Neither Gingrich nor Romney have inspired the kind of loyalty that McCain could.”

But Dyke dismissed the Huckabee parallel, saying that Huckabee’s background as a pastor gave him a stronger connection to evangelical communities than Santorum has. “It’s just apples and oranges,” he said.

One candidate who could become a thorn in the side of any candidate in South Carolina is Ron Paul, who is expected to do well in Iowa (he's in second, with 21 percent, in the NBC/Marist Iowa poll) and has some support here (he took 8 percent of likely Republican voters in the most recent NBC/Marist poll here, third behind Gingrich and Romney).

Paul today also received the endorsement of former South Carolina treasurer Thomas Ravenel, who resigned after being indicted on a federal cocaine charge. In a Facebook post, Ravenel praised Paul’s position against drug prohibition.

Paul’s organization in South Carolina is not as robust as in Iowa -- and that's not even to mention that Paul does better in a caucus setting than a primary -- but his presence here is enough to vex any candidate looking to make South Carolina, where the 2008 nominee won by just a three-point margin, a firewall.

“It will be at least a three-way race, and Ron Paul’s not getting out. So it’s not like it’s as clean and clear as I think Speaker Gingrich is articulating it,” said Tompkins. But a Ron Paul victory in Iowa could be a rallying point for South Carolina voters lukewarm towards Romney, the national consultant said.

“If Ron Paul comes in first, then all of a sudden there’s a scary bogey man we’ve all got to rally around – look, Mitt might not be our guy but we can’t let it be Ron Paul.” Regardless of the various scenarios that pundits will no doubt be gaming out between now and the South Carolina primary, one fact remains certain: a win here, preceded by losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, would be a first in South Carolina’s 30-year history of picking Republican nominees.

NBC's Alex Moe contributed