COLUMBIA, S.C. — Can Mitt Romney be dislodged as the fragile but disciplined front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination? If he can, South Carolina is the best bet for the role of spoiler.

Republican primary voters here have historically ratified establishment choices, but the old establishment has been displaced by new forms of conservative political activism, the tea party being only the latest band of rebels.

South Carolina conservatives also seem representative of their peers around the country in being uncertain and more than a trifle confused about the choices they have been handed. They are skeptical of Romney, disappointed by Rick Perry’s early performance, were enchanted by Herman Cain — a spell that may soon be broken — and are not sure what to make of the rest of the field.

All this, paradoxically, gives hope to the non-Romneys in the contest, including Perry but also former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who was campaigning in the state this week. Huntsman, given his low standing in the national polls, has a surprising number of high-powered supporters here. His strategy is to startle with a strong showing in the New Hampshire primary Jan. 10 and then pivot to South Carolina, which votes Jan. 21. This seems unlikely, but not crazy.

“I have never seen a Republican primary as wide open at this stage as this primary is,” said Bob McAlister, a Huntsman supporter who served as chief of staff to former Gov. Carroll Campbell. “That gives plenty of room to an unknown candidate, so that gives hope to Huntsman and, to be honest, to some of the other lesser-knowns.”

The candidate who absolutely needs to win here is Perry. It’s no accident that he announced his candidacy in Charleston. Brad Warthen, a popular South Carolina blogger (and a friend from his days as editorial page editor of The State newspaper) thought at the time that Perry’s August announcement speech was pitch-perfect for the state’s conservatives in its passionately anti-government and anti-Washington tone, delivered in the city where the Civil War began. The primary and, indeed, the nomination seemed within Perry’s grasp.

And then he did a remarkable job of kicking it away. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a rising conservative star in Congress and a staunch Perry supporter who helped craft his flat tax proposal, was frank in describing Perry’s early debate performances as “extraordinarily poor.” But given Perry’s underlying conservative strength, Mulvaney sees him as having ample time to rebuild and win back supporters who parked themselves with Cain.

It is a sign of how much Cain has been hurt by his handling of sexual harassment allegations that supporters of rival candidates were carefully silent about the news of the last few days. Cain is undermining himself and needs no help from anyone else.

Mulvaney thinks Cain’s “9-9-9 tax plan” was key to his emergence because voters liked “the fact that he’s at least made an attempt of offering specifics.” But Warthen notes that there is no “emotional attachment” to Cain, which makes him especially vulnerable to a quick bursting of his bubble.

In the meantime, Romney looms over the race, still unable to manage a surge despite the missteps of his opponents. “He seems capped out at 20-something,” said former Gov. Mark Sanford, referring to Romney’s standing in the polls. “There’s been a philosophical angst within the Republican Party electorate about Romney, for whatever reason.” Romney’s health care plan in Massachusetts remains a major obstacle, and charges of flip-flopping have taken hold.

The front-runner path is less promising than it used to be for another reason. Will Folks, the sometimes controversial former Sanford aide who writes the state’s most popular political blog, argues that “the old structure of South Carolina Republican politics has been overturned,” putting new forces into play. Religious conservatives, who are central to Perry’s strategy, are still important, but Folks sees another group as potentially pivotal: voters who are relative social moderates but hold conservative views on taxing and spending issues. They will be Huntsman’s targets, and Perry and Romney need them, too.

And just to complicate things further, Sanford detects “a little bit of a … bump” here for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Warthen still believes South Carolina could revert to form and support Romney as the most plausible nominee. But in perhaps no other state do the many conflicting and frequently obstreperous strains of conservatism come together — and collide. For Romney, the skilled management consultant, this will be his toughest assignment.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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