Columbia, S.C. The first voice of presidential preference from the South will be heard today, and whatever voters in South Carolina's Republican primary say, most of them will have Ronald Reagan in mind when they select among the hybrid conservative candidates claiming to be rightful heir of the Reagan legacy.
The absence of a Reagan-like consensus candidate is one reason why there have been three separate winners in the three major primary and caucus contests this month. And the outcome in culturally conservative and military-minded South Carolina could say a lot about where the solid Republican South is headed in this uncharacteristically jumbled early primary season.
On the eve of today's vote, polls showed a tight competition between Sen. John McCain, the former Vietnam War POW who won in New Hampshire, and ex-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the upstart who rode a blend of populism and evangelism to victory in Iowa.
Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and Michigan winner who invested heavily in South Carolina starting in 2006, effectively gave up Thursday and took his campaign to Nevada, which is holding caucuses today.
Fred Thompson, the actor and ex-U.S. senator from Tennessee, has yet to justify the advance billing that suggested he is the second coming of Reagan.
"I think it's really irrelevant," argued Oran Smith, executive director and president of the Palmetto Family Council, a nonprofit advocacy group that promotes family issues. "No one is going to be able to capture the Reagan magic. It was a one-time thing."
But that does not deter the candidates, who differ little on the major issues, from invoking Reagan's name - and even his favorite mannerisms - at campaign stops. Romney, who speaks with almost impeccable diction, makes a point of saying "gubment" instead of government.
The Republican winner in South Carolina (Democrats will hold their primary Jan. 26) could lay claim to this election's son-of-the-South status, as well as gain some momentum heading into Florida's primary, Jan. 29.
"If a candidate doesn't do well in South Carolina, it's going to be held against him," said Susan McManus, a political scientist at Florida Southern University. "That puts a lot of the onus on Huckabee."