Forget New Hampshire. Watch South Carolina.

The New Hampshire primary officially began in the little town of Dixville Notch at the stroke of midnight on Tuesday. And you can ignore the whole thing, as candidates not named “Mitt Romney” should have. The fact that they didn’t shows why Romney is the almost-prohibitive favorite for the nomination at this point. But they have one last chance to stop the Romney express: South Carolina, on Saturday, January 21. What’re their odds?

Forget New Hampshire. Watch South Carolina.

We can dispense with the half-hearted suspense that’s driving the current political news cycle: Mitt Romney is going to win the New Hampshire primaries, and the purported “battle for who comes in second” doesn’t matter. Unlike with the Democrats in 1992, when Bill Clinton’s second-place finish to Massachusetts native Paul Tsongas let him sell himself as “the comeback kid” going into favorable territory in the South, neither Jon Huntsman nor Ron Paul, the putative runners-up in this charade, have the money/organization (Huntsman) or broader appeal (Paul) to make it happen.

The story we should all be watching is in South Carolina, where three once-anointed “conservative frontrunners” need to figure out which one of them is going to go on to the knockout round. South Carolina votes on the 21st, over a week after New Hampshire and with more than enough time for the bizarre results of Iowa to fade from people’s memories entirely. If anyone is going to stop Mitt Romney taking the Republican nomination (and I don’t think they will), it will need to be in the Palmetto State. Who’s most likely to overtake him? As we did in discussing strange potential scenarios in Iowa (none of which, I’d like to point out, actually happened), let’s talk about who’s most likely to stop Romney, from most to least likely.

Newt Gingrich
Newton Leroy Gingrich’s worst enemy is himself. There’s no other conceivable explanation for why a man who was in the lead in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida decided to run a lackluster “positive/unconventional” (read: lazy) campaign that netted him a better-than-expected fourth place finish in the first contest. For him to come back and win now would speak boundlessly to the dysfunction of the Republican Party in its rejection of a man who worked for four years to build a national organization in favor of a nominee who literally let the nomination slide off his slovenly lap. Newt likes to play historian, so to put this in context for him, it’d be like when the Democrats nominated John Davis on the 103rd convention ballot in 1924 after their tenuous voting alliance between the South, Mountain West, and Northeast fell apart over racism. If anyone deserves to lose this race, it is Newt Gingrich.

But now Gingrich behaves as though Mitt Romney has run over his dog, and the media has picked up on it. They like it when Newt Gingrich is angry, because he gives great copy when he’s angry (calling Romney’s description of his political career “pious baloney,” for example). He probably has some money left in the bank from that month-and-a-half or so after he overtook Herman Cain (remember Herman Cain?) as the frontrunner, and independent contributions from very wealthy conservatives to Gingrich-affiliated Super PACs will probably try to tear Romney a new one the way his money-men did to the disorganized Gingrich in Iowa.

Finally, for all his foibles, Gingrich is probably still seen as the “best possible alternative” by conservative voters in South Carolina and Florida, who missed his lackluster retail campaign (and the blistering attacks from Romney and Paul). He has stature – he’s no ex-Senator or terminally-forgetful governor. And he still loves to toss out red meat at debates. With eleven days between contests, he’ll have time to let his newly-vicious anti-Mitt message sink in. That could push him over the top, in a sort of conservative murder-suicide pact for the soul of the Republican party.

Rick Perry
The only reason Rick Perry is as high as he is on this list is the strange combination of the stupidity of his opponents and his own campaign’s act getting together. If Newt Gingrich is the basic tangent function on a Cartesian graph, approaching positive and negative asymptotes but never getting to either, Rick Perry is a cosine wave, starting high at “0,” immediately plummeting into negative territory, and getting his act together much later in the game, when, for the purposes of our trig final of a Republican primary, it just doesn’t matter anymore.

Watching Perry at the debates these days is like tuning in to some sort of doppelganger. It’s as if they upgraded the operating system on the Texas governor from Bush 0.8 to Bush 1.1. Yes, the syntax is still occasionally garbled and the haunted throwback to the still-generally-reviled 43rd president is still there, but Perry now has a strong campaign and the fire in his belly to, if not win, at least be taken seriously in the modern campaigning world. As I said last week, a fifth-place finish for him in Iowa effectively reduced him to playing for posterity, but unlike Gingrich, he will (a) do the work and (b) have a smarter group of retail-oriented campaign strategists backing him.

Perry was the only one smart enough to skip New Hampshire entirely and go straight on to South Carolina. It hasn’t helped him much – he’s still stalled at 5% in polls down there – but if the bloody frenzy in the top tier between Romney, Gingrich, and Ron “One Thousand Points of Darkness” Paul hits toxic levels, Perry’s well-heeled and desperate organization is going to rise to the top. As I said in outlining the candidates’ final paths to the nomination a while back, Perry’s big problem is that he is going to have to re-convince people who trusted him initially and then were rewarded by his truly abysmal entry into the race if he wants to really compete.

In one of the strangest and quietest turns of the season, Perry’s campaign now seems to be the smartest one in the room. But the candidate may have already dealt himself too mortal a blow to recover from.

Rick Santorum
If the fact that Santorum lost his re-election bid by a whopping 18 points in 2006 didn’t convince you that his hand-holding, cookie-baking, live-in-Iowa style would not reward him anywhere else but Iowa, let this last week be an example of why he’s not going to win the nomination. Rather than take his social conservative message on the road to South Carolina, where it would (a) play better and (b) allow him to further take the wind out of Romney’s sails, he went up to New Hampshire, where Romney and Ron Paul will likely combine for over half of the vote. Then he held a series of embarrassingly bad town halls that, in the increased glare of the top-tier camera lights, made him look like a fool.

Now he’s going to limp to an abysmal fourth-or-fifth-place finish in New Hampshire. But he does have money and new friends after Iowa that will allow him to make a last stand in South Carolina. If he, like Perry, can sort out his growing pains and actually run a cogent campaign, the anyone-but-Romney masses might just latch onto him because he’s the only one who actually came close to beating Romney so far this season. Unlike Gingrich, you can’t argue Santorum is lazy, just a little stupid to even bother trying in the Northeast. Problem is, he’s only got eleven days to pull off a re-reversal of fortune that took Perry months.

Ron Paul
Not gonna happen. He won’t go to Florida, either – he’s got his sights set on more procedural targets, anyway, places like Nevada, Louisiana, and Maine. All he wants to do in South Carolina is keep Romney on the ropes.

Jon Huntsman
Huntsman, like Rudy Giuliani last time around, will stay in the race until Florida. Even if he winds up second in New Hampshire, though, he has no money and no organization – he abandoned Florida as his campaign HQ for lack of funds. But even if he does unreasonably well in New Hampshire tonight (say, losing to Romney by a single-digit margin), he is not going to be the Republican nominee. He has zero chance of winning South Carolina, less than Ron Paul, and my guess is the momentum in South Carolina will have a huge impact on who wins Florida, as it did last time around.

Look forward to seeing the networks call the New Hampshire primary for Mitt Romney shortly after the polls close. Then turn off your televisions/live feeds, listen to some sweet music, and tune back in once the palmettos start flying. Revel in the last sand-in-eyes gasps of the season. If Romney wins again, you can really well-and-truly call the primary season over. And if not, well, at least you’ll have something to watch that isn’t “Work It.”

More Faster Politics: Mitt’s Battle: How Santorum, Gingrich, and Paul are Good for Romney and Hurt Obama
More Faster Wall Street: What Huntsman Gets that Romney Doesn’t
More from Chas Carey: How Could the Republican Nomination Race Get Less Boring?; Bio/Disclaimer

Chas Carey was born between Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns and raised in a loving New England Republican household that took a brief California detour.  He’s written about politics off and on more


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