COLUMBIA,S.C. – South Carolina voters head to the polls Saturday in a critical primary, after 10 days of intense campaigning. Here’s what to watch for as the results come in:
1. Will Newt Gingrich’s outbursts work?
In consecutive debates, the former House Speaker blasted the moderator, attacking Fox’s Juan Williams for pressing Gingrich on controversial comments about African-Americans and welfare and then CNN’s John King, who asked Gingrich about his ex-wife’s accusation that Gingrich once asked her for an open marriage.
The audiences at the debates cheered both outbursts. Will voters here reward Gingrich as well? Gingrich needs to win conservative and Tea Party voters who are not as excited about Mitt Romney.
At the same time, women could turned off by the open marriage accusation by Marianne
Gingrich. (Romney leads among female Republicans in most polls here
And voters looking for a more electable Republican may stick with the more steady Romney, who has not made comments that could turn off minorities and swing voters in the general election as Gingrich has.
2. Does the Cain/Colbert candidacy matter?
Comedian Stephen Colbert is urging his fans to cast a kind of protest vote by backing Herman Cain, whose name remains on the ballot here even though he dropped out of the race last month.
It’s important to remember that any South Carolina registered voter can cast a ballot here, as the state does not limit primaries to simply members of a party.
Most of Colbert’s fans are probably not arch conservatives who will vote in this primary. But even 5 percent of the vote could make a difference here. Cain has urged people not to support him, saying it’s a waste of a vote.
3. Will Rick Santorum surge?
The former senator ramped up his rhetoric against both Gingrich and Romney here in the last several days. His primary appeal is to conservative and evangelicals, same as Gingrich. Will that help him cut into Gingrich’s vote and lift Romney to victory?
4. What happens next?
Before this week, it seemed Romney was on his way to winning three straight primaries and effectively securing the nomination.
Nevermind all that. Santorum was declared the winner in Iowa, Gingrich is the favorite here.
All four of the candidates left, including Rep. Ron Paul, are almost certain to compete in the next big primary in Florida on Jan.31. The GOP primary could now extend far into February and even March, unless Romney wins both here and in Florida.