With the rise and fall of several popular frontrunners in the race to the GOP nomination in South Carolina it remains to be seen who will take a firm lead in the state and what they will need to do to get there.
The field is wide open in the Palmetto State with just over two months remaining before South Carolinians take to the polls — and on the eve of the first nationally televised debate, from Wofford College in Spartanburg.
And that raises the question: What will it take to win the 'First in the South' GOP primary?
Although former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney has maintained a lead in most polls, a S.C. win is far from a sure thing. Romney held only a slight lead over businessman Herman Cain in a recent Clemson poll. And more than two-thirds of those polled said they were still undecided.
A recent AARP poll had Cain in the lead with 27.8 percent and Romney following closely at 27 percent, however the poll was taken prior to the allegations of sexual harassment against Cain.
"I think we just had two candidates implode within the last week," said Clemson University political science professor David James Woodard this week. "I don't think Herman Cain can regain his position after that."
After Texas Gov. Rick Perry's memory mishap at Wednesday night's debate it may take more than a few television appearances to recover.
"That was not minor, that was a major problem for him," Woodard said. "The question is: Who sucks up the oxygen when he goes down?"
Spartanburg Tea Party Organizer Karen Martin doesn't agree. Martin said the candidate gaffes aren't going to be the deciding factor for the majority of voters in the state.
"I don't think it's the mistakes," Martin said. "For a very small percentage of people the mistakes might send them searching for a new candidate, but not the majority."
On Saturday the candidates will meet again at Wofford College for the CBS News/ National Journal Republican debate to face off in front of the nation once again, presenting each candidate with a fresh opportunity to make a case for their electability. Patch will feature a live blog of the debate.
"Saturday's debate will be focused on foreign policy and that's an issue that you can't fake your way through," Martin said.
Santorum and Gingrich have both shown strength on the topic but Martin said as long as Perry and Cain do their homework, they may have a shot. Although, Martin said, she doesn't think it will make or break anyone's status in the Palmetto State.
"I don't think Saturday's debate will do anything to move anyone up or down in South Carolina," Martin said.
While most candidates have gotten involved to varying degrees in political dogfights, Martin said one candidate has helped his campaign by staying away from that element.
"All but one of the candidates have been focused on taking shots at each other except for one, Newt Gingrich," Martin said. "I think more than anyone else he's consistently stayed on message, and that's been his focus."
Romney has also done well at staying on point and has for the most part run a very smooth campaign with few errors. Romney has also managed to leave the Palmetto State off his itinerary.
"I think it's really telling for Romney who's campaigned for eight years but never won," Martin said.
Gingrich most recently polled at 10 percent in the 2012 Palmetto Poll, just ahead of Perry who came in at 9 percent among the participants who had decided. The large number of undecideds leave plenty of room for growth in several campaigns.
"I think the polls that reflect the field as wide open are more accurate," Martin said.
"The one candidate that's spent the most time in our state is Rick Santorum," Martin said. "But Newt Gingrich is staffing up here, and Herman Cain is staffing up here, so we'll see if that will still help him."
With the major political players in South Carolina refraining from endorsing any candidates it seems that getting an endorsement may not be the answer for the underdogs. Woodard said that most would be better off without a congressional endorsement with the current approval rating.
"You get a congressman to endorse you now it's like getting bit by a spider," Woodard said.
Regardless of whether they will eventually endorse a candidate, congressional representatives in South Carolina would like for the GOP hopefuls to talk about the topics that are important to the state, such as being energy independent.
Each of the candidates received a letter (see attached PDF) from congressional Reps. Joe Wilson and Jeff Duncan asking for them to address the state's concern during Saturday's debate.
They wrote, “Tomorrow evening, at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC, each of you will have the opportunity to discuss some of our country’s most pressing national security concerns. We urge you to use this occasion to focus on the topic of American energy independence and what you would do as our next Commander-in-Chief to ensure that the United States breaks its addiction to Middle Eastern oil.”
So what will it take?
Woodard thinks money will still play a significant roll despite the highly financed campaigns of Bachmann, Cain and Perry that are proving to be disaster-proned. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Santorum has a strong conservative following and has campaigned in S.C. more than any other candidate.
Securing the nomination may take more than just a physical presence, it could come down to the money.
"As these other candidates fail like Cain and Bachmann melting down and now Perry, I think there's room for him to do that in South Carolina," Woodard said. "Once you start to rise, then the money starts to come in."
Martin said the deciding factor for South Carolinians may rest on the shoulders of their fellow Americans in another state.
"I think it's going to take Iowa," Martin said. "I don't think there will be a real front-runner in South Carolina until Iowa."
While it remains uncertain exactly what it will take to win the hearts and votes of South Carolinians, it seems that the important piece may be to simply not surrender.
"It's like the Cardinals — just make the playoffs and maybe you'll win the world series," Woodard said.