As goes South Carolina, so goes the rest of the South. And, with one exception, the winner of the South Carolina Republican primary has gone on to win the South and the GOP nomination.

In 2016, the S.C. GOP presidential primary is shaping up to be more important than ever. Nationally, 2016 is about electing a commander in chief who can keep America safe. And nowhere does that issue resonate more with the electorate than in South Carolina.

The Palmetto State has a rich heritage when it comes to national security. It’s where the tide was turned in the American Revolutionary War. It’s where Jimmy Doolittle’s “Raiders” trained for their raid on Tokyo. Its native sons include names like Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, Francis Marion, and William C. Westmoreland. And today, it’s the home of the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps’ premier training centers – Fort Jackson and Parris Island.

Make no mistake, 2016 will be the most important election of our lifetime. Whoever we elect as commander in chief will face the most complex national security and foreign policy situation an American president has ever faced.

The GOP presidential candidates understand full well the pivotal role that South Carolina will play. After Iowa and New Hampshire, all eyes will be on South Carolina, where keeping America safe will be the big issue. There will be little time to regain momentum after South Carolina before heading into the SEC and Super Tuesday primaries.

Here’s where the candidates currently stand in South Carolina:

Donald Trump: By all accounts, is the New Yorker is the clear front-runner. If the election were held today, he would win by 15-20 points. Trump’s decision to organize early and tap former S.C. Policy Council President, Ed McMullen, as his senior adviser, is paying big time dividends for the real estate mogul. McMullen has put together a strong grassroots organization of Newt Gingrich activists, evangelical leaders, and military veterans. South Carolina is quickly becoming Trump’s firewall.

Marco Rubio: The Florida senator has also put together a solid “ground game” in South Carolina. Hiring former SC GOP Political Director Katie Baham Gainey has proven to be a great move on his part. Her efforts have helped to pull in Congressman Trey Gowdy and many young volunteers to the campaign.

Dr. Ben Carson and Ted Cruz:  Both candidates have a solid following among evangelicals in South Carolina.

Carson’s state director is savvy grassroots organizer, Ruth Sherlock. Sherlock was Newt Gingrich’s state co-director in 2012 and is one of the best.

Cruz has won kudos for bringing on respected former Bob Jones University official and former Spartanburg County GOP Chairman, LaDonna Ryggs, to direct his efforts in the state.

Following Lindsey Graham’s departure from the presidential race, there was a scramble to sign up his top people. The big winners were Jeb Bush, who got former U.S. Congressman and retired Federal Judge John Napier, and Marco Rubio, who secured former S.C. Speaker Pro Tempore, Doug Smith. Both are organizers and know how to raise money. Napier was Gingrich’s State Co-Chairman in 2012. Gingrich listened to Napier in 2012 – the question is whether Bush will do the same.

John Kasich: The Ohio governor’s background in balancing America’s federal budget has been well received in the South Carolina legislature. Recently, he has received the endorsements of a number of South Carolina legislators.

Chris Christie: As his fortunes have risen in New Hampshire, the New Jersey governor has begun to lay the groundwork for a win in South Carolina. Politico recently reported that S.C. native Robert Cahaly is now advising the governor. This has not gone unnoticed. Cahaly is a top-notch strategist who rewrote the book on winning presidential straw polls.

Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee: Both men are well known and have many friends in the Palmetto State due to previous strong showings in the Republican primary here.

Carly Fiorina: The former H-P CEO has been well received in South Carolina. How each does in Iowa and New Hampshire will have a major impact on their South Carolina viability.

In 1979, I had the privilege of serving on the SC GOP State Executive Committee, which made the decision to put on our first presidential primary. We were still largely a one-party, Democratic state.

Eight years later, I was State GOP Chairman. President Ronald Reagan saw the wisdom of what Southern Republican leaders were trying to do, and in 1988, invited all the southern State GOP Chairmen to meet with him at the White House.

Over lunch in the Cabinet room, President Reagan expressed his vision as to how the “Super Tuesday” primary could be used to strengthen the GOP at the grassroots level in the Deep South. Then, President Reagan looked at me across the table and, with all of the other state GOP Chairmen looking on, asked, “Why is South Carolina different? Why are you holding your primary on a Saturday, three days before everyone else on Super Tuesday?”

I said, “Mr. President, in South Carolina, we are the working people’s party, and by having a primary on a Saturday, there is no excuse for working people not voting.” Reagan smiled and said, “I like that.” It’s a moment I’ll never forget.

Yes, South Carolina is once again leading the South in selecting a GOP presidential nominee as it has since 1980.

It’s a responsibility that South Carolinians take seriously, and with their strong appreciation of national security, they will speak with a loud voice as to who is prepared on Day One to be commander in chief and keep America safe.

Van D. Hipp, Jr. is the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Army.  He is the author of the newly released book, "The New Terrorism:  How to Fight It and Defeat It."  All of the author's proceeds go to the National Guard Educational Foundation to fund scholarships for children of fallen Guardsmen.  www.thenewterrorism.com   Follow him on  Twitter @VanHipp