IRMO, S.C. – The Republican presidential fight in this Southern bastion of rough-and-tumble politics reflects the race at large — a jumble that could go any which way.
History raises the stakes and, if a guide, South Carolina could predict the outcome; since 1980, no Republican has won the nomination without a triumph here in the Palmetto State.
"I'm still deciding. I want to know which one fits what I think the best, so I'm very open," Trish O'Neill, 57, said Saturday while waiting at a hot-dog restaurant to hear from yet another candidate. Next to her, Debbie Plowman, 64, seconded that and, with a hint of exasperation about her indecision, added: "It's getting to be time to figure it out."
Such sentiments from Republican voters shed light on why each of the four top contenders — Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and John McCain — believes he has a strong chance to win here — and why each is playing hard. One poll shows nearly one-third of likely GOP voters are undecided 11 weeks before an expected 600,000 some people vote in the Republican primary on Jan. 19.
"It's unpredictable because of the undecideds. It's open for the top three or four candidates," said Katon Dawson, the state party chairman. Added Tucker Eskew, a veteran of South Carolina GOP politics and George W. Bush's 2000 race: "We've liked our front-runners, and since we don't have one, we have all kinds of fragmentation."
Recent polls show the race tight among three, with McCain trailing.
The dynamics certainly will change before the first-in-the-South primary. Iowa and Michigan hold their contests earlier, and New Hampshire is expected to as well, meaning some candidates could be knocked out before South Carolina.
The campaign here also is expected to get ugly, and possibly personal, with negative messages flooding mailboxes, radio and TV. Already, whisper campaigns have planted notions about McCain's age, 71, Romney's Mormon faith and Giuliani's rocky personal life.
For now, the contest is a toss-up.
— Romney, the multimillionaire businessman and former Massachusetts governor, has spent two years courting the state's voters and has a strong organization here. He is competitive even though white Christian evangelicals hold much sway; he has backing from some of the conservative Upstate's prominent religious leaders and Sen. Jim DeMint. The only candidate on TV, he has run more than $1.7 million in positive ads and recently has seen his support climb.
— Giuliani, the former New York mayor revered for his resolve after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, has hovered near the top of surveys as his campaign built its state operation. His three marriages and left-leaning positions on abortion and gay rights, haven't turned away voters. He attracts much support along the state's moderate coastline, and has run about $150,000 in radio ads emphasizing fiscal and security issues.
— Thompson, the actor and former Tennessee senator, has not visited South Carolina as much as the others — but is scheduled to campaign here Tuesday and Wednesday. He is struggling to make up ground organizationally after entering the race months after his opponents. He's polling strongly, although he has yet to convince the state's robust conservative base to embrace him. The state is a must-win for the Southerner with the deep drawl and Republicans say he can't take it for granted.
— McCain, the Arizona senator who lost a bitter primary to Bush here in 2000, has worked for years to avoid a repeat. But money woes and staff upheaval have hurt his efforts; he's slipped in polls. Still, he has the backing of many elected officials like Sen. Lindsey Graham and loyalists from his first run. His advocacy for the Iraq war and his Navy service during Vietnam earn him respect in a state with a large military population.
The breakfast crowd that packed into the Hot Dog Heaven in Irmo to hear from McCain epitomized the uncertainty among voters here.
O'Neill, a high school math teacher from Blythewood, said she was torn between Romney (she likes his business background), Giuliani (she admires his stand against terrorism), and McCain ("a brave upright man"). She also mentioned Mike Huckabee, the underdog former Arkansas governor.
"I like them all," she said sighing. Asked about Thompson, she said: "I was so excited when he was going to get into the campaign, but I think he's left the country now. Where is he? I'm still waiting for Fred Thompson to appear on stage."
Plowman, a Columbia resident and bank employee, struggled to say who she was most likely to back. Instead, she offered up: "I wouldn't vote for Ron Paul." The long-shot Texas congressman once ran for president as a libertarian.
She said she'd probably vote for Giuliani, Romney or McCain; Thompson is not "a suitable candidate."
Across the restaurant, Doug Martin, 63, a real estate agent from Irmo, wasn't any more certain; he said he was "probably" leaning toward Giuliani because of his terrorism position. He also said positive things about Romney and McCain.
"It's probably going to get down to between Giuliani and Romney," Martin said as he sipped coffee. "McCain is a very strong candidate. I hate to say this, but I think his age is just a little bit of a problem."