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South Carolina: Gateway to the Republican presidential nomination

“As goes South Carolina, so goes the rest of the South.” Those were the words of late South Carolina GOP Chairman Dan Ross in 1979 when the South Carolina Republican Party officially established its presidential primary beginning in 1980. 

Since then, and with every presidential election cycle since, South Carolina has always gotten it right. They got it right when Ronald Reagan defeated John Connally in 1980, when George Bush defeated Pat Robertson after his surprise Iowa caucus win in 1988, when Bob Dole stopped Pat Buchanan following his New Hampshire primary win in 1996, when George W. Bush defeated John McCain in 2000, and when John McCain beat back a challenge from Mike Huckabee in 2008.

On Saturday, Jan. 21, close to 500,000 South Carolinians will go to the polls to make their choice for president. When the South Carolina GOP Presidential Primary was established, South Carolina was still largely a Democratic state, especially at the state level. 

The presidential primary was envisioned as a way to build the Republican Party at the grass roots level. In addition, by having the primary on a Saturday, we called it the “Working People’s Primary,” as there should be little excuse for not voting. 

Since that time, South Carolina primary voters have taken this responsibility seriously. Most voters in the Palmetto State adhere to a brand of populist conservatism that subscribes to the old Ronald Reagan adage – “Vote for the most conservative candidate who can win.” This primary is shaping up to be just as exciting and decisive as South Carolina’s past GOP presidential primaries.

Mitt Romney pulled off a coup last summer when he announced that popular State Treasurer Curtis Loftis would be his state chairman. Loftis led the statewide GOP ticket in 2010 and received more votes than any Republican candidate in South Carolina history. 

Noticeably on the sidelines, however, for Romney this cycle are his “Big Three” endorsements from 2008: popular U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint; former South Carolina Gov. and Reagan Energy Secretary Jim Edwards; and Dr. Bob Jones III. Make no mistake, if Romney does win South Carolina, it will be largely due to Loftis and the ground game he has put in place with fiscal conservatives.

Newt Gingrich has a history that really none of the other candidates have. Many Republican activists remember him before he was House speaker as a neighboring Georgia congressman, always showing up at state and local GOP functions. His recent announcement of former U.S. Rep. and retired Federal Judge John Napier as state co-chairman will help solidify those GOP activists in the Pee Dee and along the Grand Strand. 

Also, just like old times, Gingrich has an Atwater campaigning for him in South Carolina. That’s right. Sally T. Atwater, the youngest daughter of the late national GOP Chairman and legendary South Carolina political figure, Lee Atwater, is Gingrich’s youth chairman in South Carolina. 

Many are those who are standing on the sidelines relishing the thought of an unleashed Newt going after Obama in a series of nationally televised debates.

Rick Santorum has built up an impressive organization of social conservatives in South Carolina who know how to organize and turn out. Santorum scored a notable accomplishment months ago in South Carolina when he garnered the support of former U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, his state campaign chairman, and Alexia Newman and her strong network of crisis pregnancy centers. The question for Santorum is how much of the Iowa momentum will now carry over to South Carolina.

Even though his poll numbers remain very low, Rick Perry has received more endorsements from elected officials in South Carolina than just about any presidential candidate in modern history. 

Much of this is due to the legwork of former state GOP Chairman Katon Dawson, who lost a very close race for the RNC national chairmanship to Michael Steele. While there has been some erosion -- popular state Rep. Liston Barfield recently switched to Gingrich -- Perry has a long list of prominent endorsements in South Carolina, including the current and past speakers of the House.

While Jon Huntsman does not show well in South Carolina polls either, he has picked up the endorsement of the respected South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson and popular former First Lady Iris Campbell.

Ron Paul is much less of a factor than in Iowa or New Hampshire. Nevertheless, he has an enthusiastic following among young people, especially around the state’s major college campuses.

While big media budgets are required to reach the approximately 500,000 expected primary voters, South Carolinians still like that “personal touch.” Over the next 10 days, look for a huge dose of BBQs and rallies designed to bring out the grass roots en masse. As in the past, expect a heavy emphasis on three different areas of the state: the Piedmont, with its strong social conservative base; the Coast, with its ever increasing retiree and veterans population; and of course as always, GOP vote rich Lexington County.

South Carolina’s energetic state GOP Chairman Chad Connelly is fond of saying, “In South Carolina, we pick presidents.” He’s right. 

No state has a better record of picking Republican presidents than South Carolina. Over the next 10 days, the eyes of the nation will once again be on the Palmetto State. I, for one, believe South Carolina will get it right once again. As South Carolina goes, so does the GOP nomination.

Van D. Hipp, Jr. is Chairman of American Defense International, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm specializing in government affairs, business development and public relations. He is the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Army and the former Chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. In 1979, he served on the S.C. GOP Executive Committee that established South Carolina’s first presidential primary in 1980. Follow him on Twitter @VanHipp.

Van D. Hipp, Jr. is Chairman of American Defense International, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm specializing in government affairs, business development and public relations. He is the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Army and currently serves on Board of Directors of the American Conservative Union and The National Capitol Board of The Salvation Army. Follow him on Twitter @VanHipp.