South Carolina voters began casting ballots in a pivotal Republican presidential primary yesterday, as former US House of Representatives speaker Newt Gingrich eyed an upset win that could turn the race upside down.
Polls opened across the state at 7am, as scheduled. If Gingrich defeats former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, it could rekindle doubts about whether the more moderate Romney can rally the conservative core, where he is viewed with suspicion.
In addition, the winner in the first nominating contest in the US South will find the wind in his sails ahead of the Jan. 31 primary in the vote-rich battleground of Florida.
The rivals criss-crossed the state ahead of the primary, mindful that no Republican since 1980 has captured the party’s nomination without first winning this southern bastion.
A victory here would be Gingrich’s first triumph after Christian conservative former senator Rick Santorum squeaked out a victory in Iowa and Romney romped home in New Hampshire.
“Tomorrow is going to be a very, very important day,” Gingrich said at a packed campaign rally on Friday in Orangeburg, adding that he aimed to “win a shockingly big victory tomorrow.”
“With your help and with the help of other good citizens across the state of South Carolina, we are going to take the first big step towards ensuring that a conservative is nominated for president of the United States,” he said.
However, Romney hopes a better-organized and richer campaign organization would ultimately carry him to victory in South Carolina and put him on course to take on US President Barack Obama in the Nov. 6 election.
“I think I said from the very beginning: South Carolina is an uphill battle [for] a guy from Massachusetts. I knew that. We’re battling hard,” he told reporters as his campaign abandoned once-confident predictions of victory.
A painful loss in the state, where he was once favored by nearly 20, points, would turn what Romney hoped would be a sprint to the nomination into a marathon where his rivals’ momentum would face his more sophisticated, well-oiled operation.
US Representative Ron Paul, a small-government champion opposed to foreign aid and overseas military intervention and backed by a devoted core of supporters, said he hoped the primary would “send a message to this country that we want less government. We want more freedom.”
Santorum told CNN his “huge upset” in Iowa showed the value of his take-no-prisoners conservative message and predicted he would “eventually end up with a one-on-one contest with Mitt Romney.”
Romney has suffered a series of setbacks. Texas Governor Rick Perry dropped out of the race on Thursday and endorsed Gingrich, and Iowa authorities rescinded Romney’s eight-vote victory in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus, declaring Santorum the winner.
A Clemson University poll released on the eve of the primary here showed Gingrich with a six-point lead over Romney, 32 percent to 26 percent, with Paul in third place with 11 percent and Santorum at 9 percent.
Respected Washington Web site Real Clear Politics’ average of recent South Carolina polling data showed Gingrich with a 2 percentage point lead over Romney.
Gingrich has risen with a series of feisty debate performances, and drew a standing ovation on Thursday from the crowd with a blistering reply to a question about his marital woes, a query he denounced as “despicable.”