Only four contenders for the Republican presidential nomination remain heading into Saturday’s primary in South Carolina, where the socially conservative electorate faces an unemployment rate of 9.9 percent — the eighth highest in the U.S. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley has endorsed former Massachusetts Governor and GOP front-runner Mitt Romney, but that’s just one of many factors that could determine a win, says Alan Gitelson, professor of political science, who recently spoke with Inside Loyola about the 2012 election season.

Gitelson, an expert on political parties and elections, describes the current presidential race as a “circus… in the context of who’s been ahead at any given point in time” and as the “bloodiest” primary/caucus season he’s ever seen. Nearly all the candidates still vying for the nomination have seen the spotlight at some point in the past six months, but most moments of promise were short-lived thanks to attack advertisements from rivals or gaffes during the debates.

Romney is the only candidate who has consistently hovered at the top, withstanding jabs from GOP competitors who question his commitment to conservative values and criticize his role at the private-equity firm Bain Capital, where he is accused of laying off workers to boost the company’s profits.

For South Carolina, Gitelson predicts that former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum will be Romney’s biggest competitor in the battle for the conservative vote, while Representative Ron Paul of Texas will likely be the top pick among 18- to 29-year-olds, as he was in Iowa and New Hampshire.

According to Politico, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has risen rapidly in the polls just days before the vote, as he tours the state touting his conservative conviction over that of the more moderate Romney. If Gingrich’s campaign keeps gaining momentum, he could lead the pack in Saturday’s race.

Gitelson says Romney could still solidify the nomination in South Carolina if he captures a sizable chunk of the state’s evangelical voter bloc. “If he’s able to carve into some of that support, it may be after South Carolina that he and his supporters say, ‘This race is over’.”

But don’t discount Florida or the Super Tuesday states, Gitelson warns. Sunshine State voters, who will hit the polls on January 31, are comprised of staunch conservatives and people who have migrated from other regions of the country, particularly senior citizens, meaning Floridians have different priorities than those in the earlier primary states.

On March 6, which is termed Super Tuesday, 10 states will have their respective primary or caucus, including Gingrich’s home state of Georgia and Romney’s home state, Massachusetts. Eight other states will host primaries between the Florida and Super Tuesday votes, but Gitelson believes the two aforementioned contests will be most telling.

The Illinois primary will be Tuesday, March 20, although the GOP’s nominee will likely be decided by this time.

Even if Romney’s winning streak continues through Florida, don’t expect Santorum, Paul, and Gingrich to concede instantaneously.

“As long as you have money, you can stay in the race,” Gitelson says.

Gitelson explains it was important for Santorum to place what was initially reported as second in Iowa so he could boost campaign momentum and, consequently, receive more monetary contributions. A recount of the vote tallies, which was released Thursday, shows Santorum topped Romney by 34 votes, although this count is not definite because results from eight of Iowa’s precincts couldn’t be verified.

Although Gingrich’s popularity has faltered, he’s still in the race and his Super PAC has spent millions of dollars on TV advertisements attacking Romney and selling Gingrich as the candidate more likely to defeat incumbent President Barack Obama in November.

If Romney is officially crowned as the nominee at the Republican National Convention beginning August 27 in Tampa, Florida, he’ll have to continue defending himself against the countless attacks and accusations brought forward by his Republican rivals.

Gitelson says Obama staffers are likely compiling “every clip of any statement by Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Santorum, Paul… that suggests Romney has been inconsistent,” to use as fodder for the general election.

When asked about Romney’s chances of defeating Obama on November 6, Gitelson says either candidate has a shot at winning, considering “the U.S. has just undergone the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression.” But he assures, “Obama has a difficult task ahead of him.”