South Carolina is the state that usually rescues the frontrunner; this time around, SC primary voters are being asked to stop one. Here’s how I expect everything to shake out, with candidates listed in order of finish.
1. Newt Gingrich — The former House speaker scores his first win of the 2012 primary season and experiences his second comeback of the campaign. Gingrich’s two-pronged attack on Mitt Romney’s conservatism and electability pays off. But can he sustain the momentum?
2. Mitt Romney — Romney manages to do better in South Carolina than once seemed possible but still only finishes second. Romney still has to be considered the favorite to win the nomination. But with the change in Iowa’s results, a loss in SC would make Romney only one for three so far. A loss right as he was looking inevitable could have unpredictable consequences, if his opponents can keep the pressure up.
3. Ron Paul — The renegade libertarian-leaning congressman from Texas has been an afterthought in most South Carolina coverage (as well as in CNN’s Charleston debate), but he could winding up quadrupling his share of the vote here compared to 2008. If he can keep ahead of oversensitive Rick Santorum, this will be his third top three showing in as many contests.
4. Rick Santorum — Santorum may be the unluckiest candidate in this race. He finishes ahead of Gingrich in New Hampshire and, as far as we know given the missing eight precincts, won Iowa — but only after everyone had stopped paying attention. He ought to be making some headway after the last debate, but only Public Policy Polling (which has him in third) seems to show this. And now Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman — both major candidates Santorum would have easily beaten — are out of the race.