Huntsman's long-shot campaign hinges on South Carolina

Republican presidential candidate, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman speaks at the Peterborough and Jaffrey-Ringe Rotary meeting in Peterborough, N.H. Monday, Dec. 12, 2011.
AP Photo/Winslow Townson
Jon Huntsman
AP Photo/Winslow Townson

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

DEERING, N.H. -- Though you might not know it given the manner in which Jon Huntsman elevates the importance of the New Hampshire primary in almost every public breath, the Republican nominating fight won't end when voters here cast their ballots on Jan. 10.

Even if Huntsman exceeds expectations in the state where he has bet it all, the challenge of keeping his hopes alive will be even tougher in the subsequent voting state of South Carolina.

Huntsman has crept up a bit in recent New Hampshire polls and frequently predicts victory here, but he told reporters after a town hall-meeting on Saturday night that even a second-place finish in the Granite State might be enough to significantly boost his chances in the South Carolina primary.

"You can certainly argue that it would dramatically beat market expectations, and that's what we need to do," he said.

Huntsman added that a strong showing in New Hampshire would prove both the strength of his ground game and would provide conservatives who dominate subsequent primary states with a reason to give him another look.

Nowhere will the support of traditional Republican voters be more important than in the South Carolina primary, which falls just 10 days after New Hampshire voters cast their ballots.

Unlike in New Hampshire, South Carolina's contest is closed to the independent voters whom the Huntsman campaign hopes will come out in droves in the first-in-the-nation primary to support the moderate Republican in a year that does not feature a contested Democratic primary.

Huntsman has three full-time paid staffers who have been planting seeds in South Carolina since signing on to the campaign last spring, and he has earned the endorsement of a couple well-known figures in the Republican establishment: former Attorney General Henry McMaster and Mike Campbell, who chaired Mike Huckabee's 2008 campaign in the state and is the son of late South Carolina Gov. Carroll Campbell.

"He's got a really nice bench in South Carolina," former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who campaigned in New Hampshire with Huntsman over the weekend, told RCP. "It's not as visible as it is here, but I think the campaign clearly realizes that gains here, you don't want to lose in South Carolina. So below the radar, they're doing a lot of prep work."

Still, a grim fact for Huntsman's South Carolina hopes remains: He has not broken 3 percent in a single state poll since entering the race.

But unlike four years ago, when South Carolina was one of the battlegrounds in the months before the primary, the various Republican campaign operations and activities in the state have been dramatically scaled down this time, and the candidates themselves have made far less frequent visits.

Polling in South Carolina has been both infrequent and mercurial, and there appears to be significant opportunity for even more surprises to develop in a campaign season that has been defined by them.

The pro-Huntsman independent group Our Destiny PAC has gone off the air this month, but a strong New Hampshire showing might be just what is needed to convince the candidate's billionaire father to pour more of his fortune into the group to fund a last-minute ad campaign in the Palmetto State.

Huntsman often predicts that Republicans will give him a second look once they think more deeply about their options.

Full CBS News coverage: Jon Huntsman

But according to his South Carolina state director, Joel Huntsman, since a significant percentage of GOP voters there still do not know who he is, many will see him with even fresher eyes during the week-and-a-half barrage of positive press that would come after a surprisingly robust finish in New Hampshire.

"After New Hampshire, quite honestly a lot of people here are going to be giving him a first look," Sawyer said. "With the momentum we'll generate out of New Hampshire, we're going to be well-positioned to compete in South Carolina."

Despite the state's substantial pool of deeply conservative evangelical and Tea Party voters, who may remain a tough sell for a candidate with a moderate record on issues like gay rights and the environment, South Carolina Republicans have demonstrated a pragmatic streak in correctly picking the eventual Republican nominee in every contest since 1980.

Mitt Romney has looked surprisingly strong in South Carolina thus far (though he trails Newt Gingrich by nearly 20 points in the latest RCP average) and recently scored the endorsement of Gov. Nikki Haley, whose backing every major GOP presidential contender besides Ron Paul sought.

But Huntsman aides note that Haley remains largely unpopular in the state she governs, and her clout has diminished significantly among the Tea Party-aligned voters who propelled her to victory in 2010.

In his last presidential run, Romney made a serious play at South Carolina throughout 2007 before withdrawing his advertising and other resources there in the week before the primary to focus on more fertile ground.

But that move came after Romney lost the New Hampshire primary to John McCain.

If the former Massachusetts governor were to hold on to his still sizable lead in New Hampshire this time around, it might provide him with enough steam to overcome the inherent South Carolina handicaps that helped sink his hopes there in 2008.

The state remains a much steeper climb for Huntsman than it is for Romney, but it also may provide the former Utah governor with his only realistic hope of becoming competitive in a drawn-out primary fight.

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.