Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) are the early favorites heading into South Carolina's decisive primary, according to Republicans there.
Despite that early momentum, Republicans in the Palmetto State caution that the race is wide open, adding that both former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) are contenders.
The state's primary has decided the eventual Republican presidential nominee since its inception in 1980. The 2012 contest is scheduled for Feb. 28, a week before Super Tuesday, when the candidate who wins in South Carolina would hope to use that momentum to knock out their competitors and sweep into Super Tuesday's block of primaries.
But there are several events before South Carolina's primary that could determine the winner.
Sen. Jim DeMint's (R-S.C.) Labor Day forum is seen as a potential inflection point: Perry, Bachmann, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and pizza magnate Herman Cain are slated to attend the event, where they'll be peppered with questions from DeMint, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and other top conservatives. Romney won't be attending, citing a scheduling conflict.
Gov. Nikki Haley (R-S.C.) has said she'll make an endorsement before the primary. The blessing of the popular, nationally-known governor could be a strong factor in the race.
And Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) is hosting a series of town-hall meetings in his district — the first one with Huntsman, and the second one with Bachmann.
"I think the field is indeed full of talented people, and ultimately they haven't spent enough time engaging the voter to make a decision," Scott said. "I think it's now time to begin focusing as much energy in South Carolina as they do any other place."
Scott spoke of the need for the candidates to build "home field advantage" in the state, something other Republicans said Perry helped establish when he launched his campaign there and Bachmann has worked toward with her frequent visits to the state.
"For establishment Republicans he's about as close to the Tea Party as they could accept," said Barry Wynn, another former state Republican chairman, of Perry. "And for Tea Party types, Perry's about as close to the establishment as they're willing to accept. I think he's kind of at the sweet spot at this point."
Of Bachmann, Wynn said: "When Bachmann comes to town she seems to have a pretty good following, an energetic group."
One former state party chairman, Katon Dawson, has signed on with Perry's campaign. Another former chairman, Henry McMaster, is helping Huntsman, whom Republicans have praised for an impressive ground game. Huntsman also scored an endorsement Monday from state Attorney General Alan Wilson (R), the son of South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson (R).
The Republican candidates will also have to wrestle with an primary electorate that's moved rightward over time. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won the 2008 primary, but the 2010 cycle saw a number of more establishment-minded Republicans fall victim to conservative primary challenges. Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) lost in a primary to Trey Gowdy, now a congressman, and Haley prevailed over other gubernatorial candidates with the help of the Tea Party.
The conservative drift has raised suspicions that Romney, a candidate who's sought to carve out an establishment-minded part of the primary electorate, might skip the primary, or at least not compete as aggressively. In 2008, Romney focused more on Nevada, winning that state's contest. But Team Romney insists that won't be the case this cycle, noting the former Massachusetts governor will be on the ground there next month.
"Romney has the scarlet letter — 'm' for 'moderate,' and that does not play well among South Carolina Republicans anymore," said Tyler Jones, a Democratic consultant in the state. "I'm not going to give Mitt Romney advice, but if I were to be advising him, I'd say stay out of the South, or South Carolina altogether."
Republicans aren't so sure. Romney's greatest asset in the primary, they say, is his case that he's the most electable candidate against President Obama.
"People want to win right now. The thing Romney has going for him more than anything else is that he's seen as a winner," Hipp said. "If Romney's smart, he'll play to that."