If it's unclear what will unfold in Iowa tonight, that goes double for what South Carolina Republicans will do Jan. 21, when they cast ballots for their presidential nominee.

"I think it's wide open, I really do," South Carolina GOP Chairman Chad Connelly said of the race in this state.

While many Palmetto State Republicans have settled on a favorite, Connelly said, "I'll bet you that of those, 40 percent to 50 percent could change their minds."

South Carolina has something in common with Iowa besides being an early state. Both have seen fewer campaign visits from Republican candidates this year than four years ago.

Connelly cited the economy -- the candidates have raised less and therefore have less to spend -- as well as the different nature of this year's race as reasons.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics,

said there has been less campaigning in Iowa and South Carolina also because the presidential primary race has been nationalized, primarily through the 13 televised debates held to date.

Three more will be held before Jan. 21, including a Jan. 16 debate in Myrtle Beach and Jan. 19 in Charleston.

"Person-to-person campaigning seems less important than the voters' evaluation of the candidates' performance and substance in the debates," Sabato said.

On top of the relative lack of campaigning could come a final indignity, if South Carolina were to see an end to its 32-year streak of seeing its primary winner eventually capture the nomination.

South Carolina officials have trumpeted that statistic as a way of justifying their state's early place in the process.

While former House Speaker Newt Gingrich sat atop South Carolina's most recent polls, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum might pull a surprise, said David Woodard, Clemson University political science professor.

Santorum has lagged in this state's polls -- and in Iowa's -- but is showing signs of surging there. "Santorum has the most impeccable conservative credentials," Woodard said. "Frankly, he has a lot of things going for him and he could fill in the vacuum," should Gingrich stumble.

Scott Buchanan, director of The Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics, said if former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney wins big in New Hampshire, then South Carolina would become absolutely critical for Gingrich.

"Gingrich has to win South Carolina," he said. "If he doesn't win South Carolina, it's over for him."

Sabato said if Romney does well in Iowa and New Hampshire, he might do better than expected here -- despite his struggle to win support here, as evidenced by his fourth place finish in 2008.

But Romney might eke out a narrow win here -- like Sen. John McCain's victory with 33 percent in 2008 -- if enough of his conservative opponents remain in the race.

"Each early state wants to leave its own distinctive mark on the nominating battle. Just as there is the momentum factor, or bandwagon effect, there is an anti-bandwagon effect," Sabato said.

"That's why New Hampshire usually chooses a different candidate than Iowa. South Carolina hasn't been so resistant to the earlier winners, but voters in South Carolina will have no hesitation about voting for someone other than the front-runner, if they want to make a statement or elongate the nominating battle."

Meanwhile, it's unclear how South Carolina's Jan. 21 vote ultimately will affect the race for delegates. The state has been docked half its delegates for moving up the calendar -- a move to ensure it remained first in the South after Florida set its primary for Jan. 31.

It's also resisting the national party's rules to award delegates proportionately, instead of on a winner-take-all basis. GOP leaders on the state and national levels are expected to iron out their differences later this year.

In the end, it might matter only to those South Carolina Republicans hoping to travel to the Tampa Bay area as a delegate in August.

"The headlines from the South Carolina result are as important as the number of delegates -- maybe more so," Sabato said.



It's impossible to say for sure what will happen in Iowa tonight and New Hampshire on Jan. 10, much less how it will alter the political landscape when South Carolina Republicans make their choice Jan. 21. Here's a look at where things stand now:

Michele Bachmann: The Minnesota congresswoman generated some buzz over the summer and soared to the top of the polls, but her support here -- and elsewhere -- has slid since then. She finished around fifth place in the state's most recent polls. She has campaigned actively in South Carolina, but she may need a good showing in Iowa to rev up her base here.

Newt Gingrich: The former speaker of the House topped South Carolina's most recent polls, but his support could wane here with poor showings in early states. Gingrich attracted the biggest crowd at a Lowcountry political event last year (a recent town hall with U.S. Rep. Tim Scott), but it might be his relative appeal among evangelical voters in the Upstate that decides how well he does here.

Jon Huntsman: The former Utah governor and China ambassador has done some campaigning here, but his crowds -- like his South Carolina poll numbers -- have remained small. Huntsman is ignoring Iowa in hopes of scoring big in New Hampshire. If he does, South Carolina will loom as his next big test: Can he continue to exceed expectations again and remain in the fight?

Rick Perry: The Texas governor won over many South Carolina Republicans early by ignoring an Iowa straw poll and kicking off his campaign in Charleston the same day. He's won the backing of some of the state's GOP establishment, but his debate gaffes have hurt him here, as elsewhere. He might be banking big on success here, with a visit planned to Aiken (not New Hampshire) immediately after the Iowa caucus.

Ron Paul: The Texas congressman placed fifth in South Carolina's presidential primary four years ago, and his base of supporters here remains as large and as avid as any candidate's -- despite his having done little campaigning in the state. But concerns over his foreign policy -- and electability -- are expected to keep him from breaking through.

Mitt Romney: The former Massachusetts governor has held steady in second place in polls here and landed a big endorsement from Gov. Nikki Haley. If he wins in both Iowa and New Hampshire, that could propel him to the top here, but those states also could crown an anti-Mitt candidate who could ride that tide into South Carolina. Romney finished a disappointing fourth here in 2008.

Rick Santorum: The former senator from Pennsylvania might be the biggest wildcard in the South Carolina's contest. He has campaigned here more than any other candidate, and while all his shoe leather hasn't paid off in the polls here to date, it just might if he continues to build momentum in Iowa -- and if none of the other non-Romney candidates break through.

Herman Cain: The Georgia restaurant executive's name will appear on the Jan. 21 ballot -- and he briefly topped the polls here in the fall -- but Cain since suspended his campaign in the wake of questions about sexual harassment and extramarital affairs.

Gary Johnson: The former New Mexico governor's name also remains on the ballot, even though he's withdrawn from the GOP contest and plans to run for president as a Libertarian.



South Carolina's Jan. 21 primary Contact info

Who can vote: All eligible voters who had registered by Dec. 21. (Even 17-year-olds could register and may vote Jan. 21 provided they turn 18 by Nov. 6, 2012).

Anyone who votes in the Jan. 21 GOP primary may not participate in the South Carolina Democratic Party's upcoming meetings to choose delegates to its county, state and national conventions. Democrats begin that process Jan. 28 with precinct reorganization meetings.

Absentee voting: Is open now.



How to contact your county's voter registration office

--Berkeley County Board of Voter Registration, P.O. Box 6122, 6 Belt Drive, Moncks Corner, SC 29461; phone 719-4056; fax 719-4060; berkeleycountysc.gov/dept/elections.

--Charleston County Board of Voter Registration, P.O. Box 71419, 4367 Headquarters Road, North Charleston, SC 29405; phone 744-8683; fax 974-6419; charlestoncounty.org/departments/BEVR/index.htm.

--Dorchester County Board of Elections and Voter Registration, 201 Johnston St., St. George, SC 29477; phone 563-0132; or fax 832-0132; dorchestervotes.org.


Yvonne Wenger contributed to this report. Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.