South Carolina experts say Texas Gov. Rick Perry may be in the best position to win the ground game in Palmetto State but the late entrant into the race still has a lot of work to do.
As the typical third big contest of the primary season, and possibly the first in the South, South Carolina could swing a lot of national momentum. Several candidates are reportedly hoping to win Iowa or New Hampshire, and then pull ahead of the pack with a strong showing in South Carolina.
"The [South Carolina] primary gives the impression that someone can win an election nationally," said Robert Oldendick, the director of the University of South Carolina's Institute for Public Service and Policy Research in Columbia.
Oldendick noted that South Carolina is known for picking the GOP candidate, correctly choosing the Republican nominee in each election since 1980.
"It also eliminates some people who don't do well."
And that's going to be important for Perry. He'll have to post respectable numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire, but a win in South Carolina is likely a must for the Texas governor, who announced his candidacy at the August RedState event in Charleston.
But Perry's biggest trump card right now is likely his collection of who recently endorsed his campaign. His garrison of nearly two-dozen legislators who routinely get the ear of their colleagues and a few minutes to speak at every county party breakfast or monthly meeting.
State Sen. Larry Grooms (R-Bonneau, S.C.) ran briefly for governor in 2010. He said he is looking forward to traveling with Perry in the sate.
"My role is going to be helping him become more familiar with our needs as the campaign moves forward," Grooms said.
Party insiders and political observers say there isn't much to distinguish between the other campaigns on the ground at this point. Other candidates have important endorsements, but have seen little traction.
— Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman has former Attorney General Henry McMaster and current Attorney General Alan Wilson, as well as the family of former Gov. Carroll Campbell, but he hasn't seen any movement in the polls.
— Gov. Mitt Romney has put state Treasurer Curtis Loftis on the campaign trail, but two major endorsements from his 2008 campaign are still sitting on the sideline: Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Jim DeMint.
No Sure Thing
"I'll be talking about Rick Perry's job in Texas and defending him when I have to," said State Sen. Paul Campbell (R-Goose Creek, S.C.).
Perry has needed defending lately as the candidate has stumbled in his few chances to introduce himself to a national audience.
Perry’s defenders may be ready for war, but they won’t save a floundering candidate, says Jeri Cabot, adjunct political science professor at the College of Charleston.
"That gets you media attention, but endorsements are pretty overrated," said Cabot. "It doesn't necessarily translate to work on the ground."
Not every expert pointed to Perry as the leader on the ground.
"The most organized ground game, with staff and strategy, is Jon Huntsman," said Columbia-based GOP consultant Wesley Donehue, who worked for Romney in 2008.
Huntsman gobbled up key South Carolina campaign consultants early, including Adam Piper, Joel Sawyer and Richard Quinn. It hasn't translated to success in the polls yet, but Donahue says it gives Huntsman boots on the ground for a strong campaign after New Hampshire.
Perry is also going to have to spend more time in the state, as he's leading a field that so far has been surprisingly disengaged locally. Berkeley County Republican Party Chair Tim Callanan says he has seen more from long-shot candidates like former Sen. Rick Santorum than anyone from the top tier.
"I'm surprised that Perry and Romney haven't been here more often," Callanan said. "I don't think there are many candidates working very hard in South Carolina. It frustrates me to see them concentrate so much time in Iowa and New Hampshire."
Both leading campaigns appear poised to fix that problem. Ann Romney made two stops in the state last week, with a promise that her husband would be making an appearance in early October. Perry isn't expected to be too far behind. Grooms said he'll be back in the state by the middle of the month.