South Carolina Republicans love to talk about their streak: Since 1980, the winner of the Palmetto State's presidential primary has gone on to win the GOP nomination.

South Carolina Republican voters have given important wins to Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole and George W. Bush, often resurrecting their campaigns after subpar performances in Iowa or New Hampshire.

But could next year be the year that it ends?

State Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson hopes not, but he already is hedging his bets, saying the crowded Republican field might mean that South Carolina essentially produces two or three winners in its Jan. 19 primary.

"I don't think there's going to be a single winner," he said. "We're going to give a tremendous bounce for (whoever finishes) one and two. ... One and two are going to be perceived as the winners."

Any sports fan knows that streaks eventually come to an end. It's the same in politics.

Clemson University political science professor Dave Woodard likened South Carolina's GOP presidential streak to the dominant UCLA basketball teams of the John Wooden era, which eventually ended in 1975 after 10 championships.

"We're sort of beating our breasts, 'First in the South. Always pick the winner.' It ain't going to last forever," Woodard said. "Someday you're going to lose."

This much is clear: It's still anyone's race here on the Republican side. The most recent CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll showed no fewer than six Republicans with support from at least 11 percent of likely voters: former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, whose 24 percent mark re-enforces his status as the candidate on the hottest streak; former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson (17 percent); former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and

former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (16 percent each); Arizona Sen. John McCain (13 percent); and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, whose 11 percent showing puts him in sixth place but still sharply higher than previous polls.

Berkeley County GOP Chairman Wade Arnette has followed Republican presidential primary politics in S.C. since the streak began in 1980, and while he would like to see it continue, he can't recall ever having so many viable candidates or so many front-runner changes.

"I wish I could tell you 'this person has the inside track,' but we're watching it close," he said. "I wish I had all the answers right now, but I don't."

South Carolina will remain an important gauge of a candidate's popularity among Southern voters, an important Republican bloc, said DuBose Kapeluck, an assistant political science professor at The Citadel.

He also predicted the outcome in the state will hinge on candidates' performances in earlier states. "I think South Carolina Republican primary voters are pragmatic, and they're going to vote for whoever does well," he said.

But Dawson said Iowa and New Hampshire won't matter here as much as some think. "We have never, ever paid attention to the first two states. We have been the correction state," he said.

Even if one candidate ends up winning the state, others could pick up delegates here by prevailing in one or more of the state's six congressional districts. In 2000, George W. Bush won 53 percent of the vote in the state to thwart McCain, but McCain still won a few delegates by virtue of his first-place finish in the 1st Congressional District.

If the streak were to end, that could diminish South Carolina's first-in-the-South role in future Republican presidential contests. Dawson said, "It would change the equation for 2012. I would have lost my selling point."

But Woodard noted many other factors also will affect the state's role next time, such as the possibility of reform so the primary process isn't such a post-holiday blitz.

And if the streak manages to survive, then expect more talk about it, not less.

"The upside is tremendous for South Carolina if we do pick a winner," Woodard said. "Then we really could play kingmaker."