*** Showdown in South Carolina: Tomorrow’s Republican presidential primary in South Carolina will determine -- as Politico’s Martin put it yesterday -- if the GOP contest essentially ends or if it continues for the next several weeks or even months. A Romney win in a state where he finished fourth four years ago would make him the de facto nominee, proving that he can win in a conservative-dominated state, even if he benefits from a divided conservative vote. But with Newt Gingrich’s newfound momentum (his climbing poll numbers in South Carolina, his strong debate performances, the Perry endorsement), he finds himself in position to win this primary. And if that happens, the Republican presidential race will move on to Florida on Jan. 31 and beyond. Forty-eight hours ago, we all believed that Romney was about to make history, going 3-for-3 in the first three contests. But come Saturday, there’s the potential for another kind of history -- having three different Republican winners in the first three contests. That has never happened before.
*** Big stakes for Romney: As we wrote several days ago, Romney’s fundamental problem is this: He’s been unable so far to win over conservatives in a conservative state. And if he’s unable to beat Gingrich and Rick Santorum in South Carolina -- both of whom have their shortcomings -- it would send a flashing warning signal to party leaders. What’s more, it would produce chatter, fair or not, that the party needs to find someone else, just as Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is set to deliver the GOP response to President Obama’s State of the Union on Tuesday night. And chew on this: Did Team Romney make a mistake by playing so hard in South Carolina? As soon as his campaign gladly accepted Gov. Nikki Haley’s endorsement, it raised the stakes of a contest that was never going to be easy for him. In fact, it reminds us of what happened to Hillary Clinton there four years ago, when Bill Clinton was certain he was going to be able to help his wife in South Carolina and the Clinton campaign went all in. To paraphrase the immortal Admiral Ackbar, South Carolina can be a trap. Polls close tomorrow at 7:00 pm ET, and the GOP turnout in the 2008 primary there was 445,000.