REUTERS - Lee Bandy knows more about politics in South Carolina than just about anybody. For 40 years, Bandy has been among the best political prophets in a state whose primary has correctly picked every Republican candidate for U.S. President since 1980.
In just over a week, on January 21, the state's, and Bandy's, powers of prognostication will be tested once more, in a Republican primary season whose unpredictable twists and turns have made fools of many prophets.
Right now Bandy, a veteran columnist with The State newspaper in Columbia, is betting on Mitt Romney to win the South Carolina primary, and small wonder.
Whether or not he gets to the White House by eventually beating Democrat Barack Obama in November's presidential election, Romney is already on the verge of making history.
No Republican candidate has ever followed a win at the Iowa caucus, which Romney secured narrowly last week, with victory in the New Hampshire primary, and virtually everyone but his opponents expects that he will do just that on Tuesday night.
The latest polls show Romney with a 20-point lead over his nearest rival in New Hampshire and recent polls in South Carolina show him having leapfrogged more conservative opponents into first place there.
"A lot of Republicans down here don't like Romney," Bandy said of South Carolina voters. He was referring especially to the two thirds of Republican primary voters in the Palmetto State who are evangelical Christians. They are leery not only of Romney's Mormon faith but also of his earlier moderate positions on abortion and gay marriage, among other social conservative apostasies.
"But many have decided to vote for him because they think he's going to get the nomination. The aim here is to unseat Obama, and there's no real movement toward any other candidate."
A LAST CHANCE MISSED
Bandy's comments reflect a growing consensus among Republican strategists, independent analysts and party members that any opportunity for Romney's rivals to block his path to the nomination might be lost unless something very dramatic occurs in the next two weeks.
Some thought his opponents would unleash a torrent of abuse during two televised debates over the weekend in a last-chance effort to force a stumble, but Romney emerged largely unscathed.
His two main rivals for the Republican nomination, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, went on the attack in the second debate on Sunday morning, but appeared to have failed to deliver a "game-changing" moment.
For Tuesday's contest, moreover, Romney has the advantage of owning a house in New Hampshire as well being the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts. In New Hampshire faithful social conservatism counts for less than it does in Iowa or South Carolina.
Santorum's conservative credentials certainly accounted for his surge in Iowa, when he came within a handful of votes of defeating Romney. But polls in both New Hampshire and South Carolina suggest that the victory carried little momentum.
"Is the Romney nomination a done deal? If he wins South Carolina it is highly unlikely he will not be the nominee," said Ford O'Connell, a Republican stategist.
"There is a large anti-Romney bloc out there," O'Connell added. If you put together the votes for Santorum, former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Governor Rick Perry into one, "they would have the numbers to beat Romney," he said.
They cannot be rolled into one, of course - unless perhaps they can.
Next weekend a group of leading Christian Republicans will meet in Texas. It is widely assumed that the gathering, on the Texas ranch of influential southern Baptist Paul Pressler, is aimed at endorsing and, presumably, enriching a single candidacy which could finally energize the party's restive conservative base and unify the stop-Romney vote.
The leading contenders for that spot are Gingrich, Santorum and Perry and they have all vowed to contest South Carolina. But Gingrich and Santorum have close ties, and Perry appears to have no hope of a late surge. Who knows what the potential for a unity candidate might be?
Some major Republican donors are also intent on blocking a Romney nomination.
Casino executive Sheldon Adelson, a longtime Gingrich backer, gave $5 million to a political action committee supporting the former Speaker's candidacy, according to news reports.
The donation went to Winning Our Future, a political action committee that supports Gingrich. Such committees, known as "Super PACS", can take in unlimited donations and unleash a barrage of negative advertising against opposing candidates. That was how Romney's Restore Our Future PAC snuffed out a late challenge by Gingrich in Iowa.
Adelson's donation means Gingrich can now take the fight to Romney in South Carolina, where Republican primary politics is a bloodsport. Gingrich is unlikely to shrink from the opportunity.
Perhaps the greatest threat Romney faces in South Carolina is from Republican Senator Jim DeMint. A favorite of the conservative anti-Washington Tea Party movement, DeMint has yet to endorse a candidate.
"An endorsement by Jim DeMint would be a huge boost" to a Romney rival ahead of the South Carolina primary, O'Connell said. "It could make all the difference in a tight race."
AND YET AGAIN
For all the antipathy felt for Romney by many conservatives, a majority still believe he has the best chance to beat Obama.
There is his business background, in an election year focused on jobs and the economy, and there is his campaign war-chest, bulging with enough cash for a long slog to the nomination, should that be necessary.
If he prevails in South Carolina, Romney would head to Florida on January 31 with enormous momentum and the money to blanket such a huge state with advertising.
He is also heavily favored to win the state primary in Nevada, on February 4, having won there in his unsuccessful 2008 bid.
"Is it getting harder and harder to envisage him as not the nominee? Yes," said Stu Rothenberg, a veteran independent political analyst. "Does that make it inevitable? No. It's wise to remember this is such a crazy primary election cycle."
It is a cycle that has featured euphoric rises and hard-to-watch pratfalls by the likes of Donald Trump, Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry.
Such dizzying performances leave the likes of Rothenberg and Bandy unwilling to risk a premature call.
"There is a lot for Romney to fear down here," said Bandy, citing Gingrich and Santorum as particularly dangerous.
"Romney's in the driving seat," Rothenberg said. "But he could make a mistake. The field could narrow. And the electorate could still change its mind."
(Reporting By Tim Reid; Editing by Jim Gaines and David Storey)
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