GOP hopefuls flock to Palmetto State

Mitt Romney, the GOP leader in the latest South Carolina polls, campaigns with Gov. Nikki Haley in Columbia Wednesday night.

COLUMBIA, SC (WACH) - The polls ahead of South Carolina's first-in-the-South primary show Mitt Romney is the frontrunner, and the situation on the streets appears to back up those numbers.

Several hundred Romney supporters crammed into the The Hall at Senate's End in Columbia Wednesday night for a chance to see the GOP hopeful campaign with Governor Nikki Haley.

"So I'm going to go to work and do a couple of things. One, I'm going to scale back the size of the federal government," Romney told the capacity crowd.

Romney's pledge to smaller government and job creation has helped drive the former Massachusetts governor to the top of the Palmetto State polls, but he won't be alone in his fight for votes in the critical South Carolina battleground.

All the GOP hopefuls criss-crossed the state Wednesday, launching aggressive ground games making it likely South Carolina will be the first early-voting state contested by the entire field of hopefuls after some ignored campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire.

South Carolina voters have successfully chosen the eventual GOP nominee since 1980.

"This is decided by people meeting the candidates," said Chad Connelly, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. "Our voters have a high expectation bar. They want to get to know them. They want to see them."

Despite his lead in the polls, Romney's Mormon faith and Northern pedigree has hurt him in South Carolina before. He finished a disappointing fourth in the 2008 first-in-the-South primary after pouring significant resources into the state.

Romney leads Rick Santorum, who is rising fast in South Carolina polls after finishing just eight votes behind Romney in Iowa, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman.

Social conservatives like Gingrich, Perry and Santorum are looking to be the anti -Romney candidate in the Palmetto State, but analysts say that may in fact help the frontrunner.

"There's not one candidate who has emerged as the conservative alternative," said Dr. Bob Oldendick of the USC Institute for Public Service and Policy Research. "We've got at least three and maybe four vying for that mantle. And the fact that they're going to split the vote relatively equally next Saturday is a case where it's to his (Romney's) advantage."

Jobs will be the big issue for the candidates in South Carolina where the unemployment rate sits just below ten percent. Romney rode the economy to a win in New Hampshire, but things could play out differently before the January 21 primary in a state with a reputation for no-holds-barred politics that can quickly change the landscape.

"It could turn into a backyard brawl. Things could go to the mat so to speak," said Connelly.

Romney is the first GOP non-incumbent candidate to win both Iowa and New Hampshire since 1976. No candidate has ever pulled off the hat trick by sweeping both those states and South Carolina.

Have you decided who you will vote for in the January 21 primary or will the candidates' campaigns in South Carolina help you make up your mind?