COLUMBIA, SC (WACH) - South Carolina Republicans say it is winner-take-all in the Palmetto State as the first-in-the South primary inches closer.
Since 1980, South Carolina's Republican voters have accurately picked the eventual GOP nominee. Political insiders say 2012 will be no different, but the stakes are even higher after a stunning Iowa Caucus that saw Mitt Romney edge Sen. Rick Santorum by a history-making eight votes.
Santorum, who had been running near the back of the pack in most polls, has picked up significant momentum heading into the New Hampshire Primary and South Carolina's first-in-the South vote.
"For 30 years now we have picked the eventual nominee on the Republican side. We're legitimate," said SC GOP chairman Chad Connelly. "This has become tradition here and our voters have a high expectation of getting to know candidates."Related Stories GOP candidates eye Iowa as possible springboard to SC Governor Nikki Haley endorses Mitt Romney for president SC GOP's primary funding dodge irks Republicans
And that takes an effective meet and greet ground game in South Carolina. Santorum, who visited all 99 Iowa counties before Tuesday's caucus, has visited the Palmetto State more than any of the candidates. Santorum has campaigned in South Carolina 26 times in all, ahead of Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney who have visited 19 and 11 times, respectively.
South Carolina's smaller size and less expensive media markets, where candidates can buy up valuable ad time, make for what Connelly calls a wide open race.
"Any candidate can come to South Carollina and be competetive here," said Connelly. "They can criss-cross the state, we're small enough. We have a a lot of venues where people can come out and get to know candidates ."
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney worked New Hampshire on Wednesday fresh off his slim Iowa Caucus win, but does have stops in South Carolina planned for later this week. Romney plans to campaign with Gov. Nikki Haley along the coast on Friday. Haley endorsed Romney just before Christmas.
The field of GOP hopefuls also thinned following Tuesday's caucus when Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann suspended her White House bid after a sixth-place finish.
Political analysts point out the shrinking field, plus what happens at New Hampshire's primary, will up the stakes for candidates looking to connect with South Carolina's social conservatives.
"The race in South Carolina really is going to focus on who can attract the conservative, primarily strong religious voters on the right hand part of the Republican spectrum," said Charles Bierbauer, USC dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies.
Who that candidate is remains to be seen. The latest polls out of South Carolina showed Newt Gingrich as the frontrunner, but those numbers have not been updated for several weeks.
State GOP officials estimate 450,000 voters will turn out for the state's primary later this month, slightly more than in 2008, but not close to the high-water mark set back in 2000 when slightly more than a half-million people cast ballots.
As South Carolina's January 21st vote approaches, several GOP hopefuls will be spending time in the Southern battleground state despite the fact the critical New Hampshire Primary is next on the political calender on January 10.
"To have them come here ahead of the New Hampshire primary is a little bit indicative of how important they see South Carolina and the role that we play," said Connelly. "Once again I'm convinced we're going to be the most important state in this entire process."