The Daily Beast’s Guide to the South Carolina Primary

Will South Carolina wrap up the race for Romney, or will Gingrich ride his latest wave to a win?

Mitt Romney, who was riding high until it turned out his Iowa “victory” warranted scare quotes, is playing down his prospects in the South Carolina primary, deeming the race “neck-and-neck” Friday. As Palmetto State Republicans make their pick today, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. The Daily Beast’s guide to what to watch in what could be the last real of the primary season, or just the beginning:

A Warm Carolina Welcome for The Gentleman from Georgia

With the most recent polls showing him pulling ahead of Romney, Gingrich tried to turn a potentially devastating Nightline interview with his second wife—she says he wanted “an open marriage” to continue his affair with the woman who instead became his current wife—to his advantage at Thursday night’s debate. The crowd cheered and applauded when he used a question about the allegations to rip “the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media.”

Rick Santorum, running fourth in the four-man field in South Carolina, tried to raise the issue Friday, telling voters that there were “issues of character” for Gingrich. “I believe in forgiveness … I do believe having some accountability to a higher calling other than self is a very, very important aspect and perspective that is important for leaders.”

But Marianne’s interview seems to have fallen short of its target. On Friday, even Romney’s senior advisers were conceding that the state was at the least in play. “Do I think we could lose South Carolina? Sure. Of course,” Romney strategist Stuart Stevens told CNN.

What is the Tea Party Brewing?

If voters still want to hear more about any one issue, it’s the economy. The evangelical community (sort of) consolidated behind Santorum. But not many voters have followed (or if they have, they’re lying to pollsters about it).

People still have too many bills and not enough work, and they’re more likely to vote for a politician who tells them how he’s going to make that better. “This is a very volatile field,” Tea Party Express head Amy Kremer told reporters. “The people of South Carolina are going to have to make the decision and what they can all agree on is the economy is the most important issue.”

Much like the evangelical community, Tea Partiers haven’t found what they’d like in the Republican field this year. Mitt Romney focused his campaign activities on the affluent coastal parts of the state, where he hopes to score support from moderates. South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, who supported Romney in the past, has withheld his endorsement. “I don’t think there’s very many people in South Carolina who are waiting for me to tell them how to vote,” he said Friday.

Other Tea Party voters seemed more interested in continuing the local politics and grassroots organizing that swept the movement into the national consciousness in the first place. Myrtle Beach Tea Party leader Joe Dugan was one of those who said his attention is elsewhere. “Some of our people will continue to campaign for their candidates in Florida,” he told the Financial Times, “but I think others will choose to take a larger role in helping the state to elect Tea Party-minded candidates to the Congress and to local positions.”

The Christian Science Monitor staged the question in more dire terms, asking “Is tea party ‘dead’ if Newt Gingrich fails in South Carolina?” ABC asked “Is South Carolina the Last Gasp for Tea Party in GOP Nomination?

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The website for the South Carolina State Election Commission has archived primary results, rundowns on the candidates, a guide to how the Commission reports results on election nights, tips and reminders for South Carolina voters—everything!

Go here to see the fastest results as South Carolina precincts report.

The Real Colbert Bump

Stephen Colbert and former candidate Herman Cain hosted a rally Friday. Colbert, who has his own super PAC, tried to buy naming rights to the primary, and has been urging South Carolina voters to cast their ballot for Cain, was in rare form. “If corporations are people, then I’m a people person,” he said, satirizing the Citizens United decision. “The Lockheed Martin Luther Burger King, if you will.” Cain didn’t seem to get it. Reuters reported Thursday that Democrats in the state were ”unamused” by Colbert’s pro-Cain activities. Thursday, Mr. 9-9-9 announced to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference that he was endorsing “the people.” The people, unlike Cain himself, are not on the ballot in South Carolina.

It sounds like another instance of Colbert rubbing out the line between satire and reality. But if enough voters follow his exhortations and get behind Cain, the former Godfather’s CEO could wind up with a delegate or two. Put that possibility together with that of a Gingrich win today and a primary season that drags all the way to convention—and with Ron Paul and perhaps Rick Santorum also hanging in and collecting delegates — and the next few months could be truly uncharted waters.