Billionaire real estate investor Donald Trump rolls into the GOP's South Carolina primary with the political wind at his back. But political observers say the contest for which contender will emerge as his main rival may not be decided for weeks to come.
Will Folks, editor of the South Carolina-based FITSNews website and one-time spokesman for former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, told AMI Newswire that Trump has more than just a lead in recent polls going for him. He may also benefit from a split in the state's Republican establishment.
South Carolina's Lieutenant Governor, Henry McMaster, who had been expected to follow the lead of U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and one-time presidential hopeful Sen. Lindsey Graham by endorsing one of the other candidates, endorsed Trump, instead.
Scott endorsed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Graham threw his support for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
"Endorsements matter if there is something else attached to them -- some sort of symbolism that rises above the actual endorsement itself," said Folks.
"McMaster's is important in that regard," Folks said, "because he was widely expected to go the way of the GOP establishment. His failure to do so shows there is a divide in the status quo that could accrue to Trump's benefit."
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who took a thinly-veiled swing at Trump in her response to President Obama's State of the Union address, has not endorsed any of the presidential candidates. Folks believes she is "in a box."
"There's really nowhere she can go," he said. "In 2012, she was at her nadir, and gave Romney the kiss of death," when she endorsed his bid for the GOP nomination.
"Today," Folks said, "she's at her apex, and has no one to kiss."
Robert Holland, a Senior Fellow with the Heartland Institute and a former Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist who now lives in Myrtle Beach, told AMI Newswire that Haley's reluctance to endorse any candidate so far "seems to be a Nikki Haley mystery in SC political circles."
""I think she would love to endorse Jeb Bush, on whom she was lavishly praising a year ago," Holland said. "However, what if Jeb loses badly here, despite 'W's' intervention and all the spending? No doubt she's thinking about her vice presidential prospects and how they would be affected."
But, Holland adds, "if she doesn't endorse, that will make her appear weak."
Former President George W. Bush voiced a sixty second radio ad for his brother that began airing in South Carolina on Wednesday. The ad makes frequent reference to the younger Bush's leadership qualities, as well as his "respect for the military."
Folks said that momentum matters in South Carolina, and heading into the February 20th primary, Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz helped themselves with their first and third finishes, respectively, in New Hampshire.
"The establishment picture could have been cleared up significantly with a strong Rubio performance," Folks said. "But he missed his window. And in so doing opened one for Jeb and John Kasich."
Senior Republican strategist Shaun Kenney agrees that momentum is important. But he told AMI Newswire South Carolina may prove to be the big test for Sen. Cruz.
"In New Hampshire, Bush spent $36 million to get to fourth, while Cruz spent $0.6 million to get to a close third," Kenney said.
He believes South Carolina must answer two questions."Can the establishment finally settle on a candidate, and will Ted Cruz's southern strategy pay off?"
"If Cruz can pull down Trump to his level and beat him," Kenney said, "the establishment insurgency dies on the vine. If Cruz is caught in a pincer, then amazingly enough it might be Cruz who has the hard decision to make before Florida."
Folks noted that South Carolina's political landscape has changed substantially since former House Speaker Newt Gingrich won the state's presidential primary in 2012. And that spells trouble for establishment candidates.
Folks noted that in 2012, three candidates with years of experience "combined to get more than 80 percent of the vote in South Carolina."
"This year, the top three establishment candidates -- Rubio, Bush, and Kasich -- are struggling to hit forty percent." he said. "That's a quantum shift."
Holland believes it may not be a shift so much as more of what voters saw in 2012.
"Newt was a master of capitalizing on anger at the media -- he dominated the debate here using that tactic," Holland says. "Trump, of course, does the same."