Haley backed Romney four years ago, when she was still a state representative and the former Massachusetts governor was building a massive operation in the state, complete with big-time consultants and an extensive ground game. He came in fourth, the fatal blow that sealed his chances. This time, Romney has mostly stayed away, and many of his former backers -- like Sen. Jim DeMint, the local conservative icon -- are neutral instead.
Felkel and other South Carolina observers said the race in the state seems extraordinarily volatile at the moment. "It's hard to believe I'm about to say this," he said. "But Romney is in pretty good shape in South Carolina."
That's certainly the view of state Treasurer Curtis Loftis, Romney's South Carolina chairman. Loftis seems like an unlikely Romney supporter: a Southern Baptist evangelical allied with the tea party who ousted a Republican incumbent in his first bid for public office. "I am from the right wing of the party," Loftis, an effusive former businessman with a meaty face, said in an interview in his state office. "So a lot of people were surprised" when he came out for Romney in August.
But as other contenders continue to fade, he said, "Every day, people call me up and say, 'OK. I get it now.'" Loftis won't name names, but he says, "There are a lot of people who came out for Rick Perry who are behind Mitt Romney now." He doesn't mind that Romney is their last choice, as long as that's where they end up.
"I give Romney a chance here," said Neal Thigpen, a retired Francis Marion University political scientist and longtime Republican activist. It will depend on what kind of momentum he gets out of Iowa and New Hampshire, he added. "He's sitting in a pretty good spot -- he's got all these people, the anti-Romneys, all divided up." Perry, in Thigpen's estimation, is "dead meat."
But David Wilkins, a top South Carolina Perry supporter, is keeping hope alive. Wilkins is Republican royalty -- a Greenville-based lawyer, he served as U.S. ambassador to Canada under George W. Bush after chairing Bush's South Carolina campaigns. He jumped on board with Perry within a week of Perry's announcement, and says he has never regretted it, despite the ups and down of the campaign thus far.
Wilkins' choice of Perry was a gut-level decision, he said in an interview.
"I met with him, I met with his wife, and I connected with him," Wilkins said. "I thought he was genuine. I had an hour-long conversation with him, and based on that, plus researching his record, I was sold."
Wilkins acknowledges that Perry has failed to live up to the high early expectations. But he has handled the fallout from his "oops" moment well, Wilkins said, and now has a chance at a "fresh start."
Unlike the other early primary states, Wilkins said, South Carolina is a solidly Republican state, and a conservative Republican state at that.
"Right now, you have a number of candidates splitting the base," he said. "But Gov. Perry's got staying power and Gov. Romney has staying power. Whether or not anybody else has staying power, I don't know."
Image credit: Getty Images/Richard Ellis