Republican presidential candidates, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former...

Republican presidential candidates, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich share a laugh during a commercial break at the Republican presidential candidate debate at the North Charleston Coliseum in Charleston, S.C. (Jan. 19, 2012) Credit: AP

With scant hours until South Carolina's Republican presidential primary is in the books, the question is whether the state can keep its streak alive, and I don't mean its run of being featured in more embarrassing stories on "The Daily Show" than any other state.

South Carolina hosted its first GOP presidential primary in 1980, and no Republican candidate has ever won the contest and lost the nomination. Can it continue that tradition? That may depend on who wins Saturday, and by how much, but it also depends on how much South Carolinians care -- and what caused the streak in the first place.

South Carolinians have no magical powers, unless you count the perfection of slow-cooked pork as a form of sorcery (which I do). The state's Republican victor always gets the national nod because South Carolina Republicans unfailingly opt for the best funded, least nutty candidate.

The GOP always nominates the next guy in line, never a maverick or upstart, and South Carolina reflects that. Sen. John McCain, is a great example: In 2000, when he was the upstart, he lost. In 2008, when it was his turn, he got the nomination. The winners there: Ronald Reagan (twice), George H.W. Bush (twice), Bob Dole, George W. Bush (twice) and John McCain. If the state had ever opted for a Forbes or Bauer or Buchanan or Robertson, it would have no streak to boast of.

South Carolina voters can't hand over nominations to poorly funded fringe politicians. Yet they possess the priorities needed to choose the candidate who will make sense to voters in other states.

But they may now be entering uncharted waters. The next guy in line, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- he of the bulging bank account, white teeth, luxurious hair and spit-shined family -- may lose South Carolina. If that happens, will the nation follow, or will the streak end?

As of Friday, the latest polls showed Romney trailing former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in South Carolina, but he could still win the primary. Romney's only down by few points, and the state's voters are notoriously difficult to predict.

What's more, the state has no voter registration by party, and anyone eligible to vote can cast a ballot Saturday. That means Democrats and independents are allowed just as much say as Republicans (though fewer of them will bother to vote).

How will the non-Republicans swing? A few will support Paul, agreeing with him on exactly half the issues and wanting to stir up trouble. More though, will vote for the Republican whose presidency would least make them want to flee to a new land: Romney.

And there's another question that could sway the results: How much do South Carolina's Republicans care about their reputation for picking the nominee?

The state's movers and shakers care very much. South Carolina Republican Party chairman Chad Connelly believes the state's predictive record is important. The last two state party chairs, Karen Floyd and Katon Dawson, have also implied it matters a lot.

And it does, to them, and their cronies. Famous people take their calls. Powerful politicos agree to speak at their banquets. Multiple debates grace their territory, and all of this raises money and exposure for their organization.

Do voters care about the streak? Nah. They mostly don't get too tricky with their ballots. They vote for the person they most want to win. So Romney could still win South Carolina, and if he does, he'll get the nomination fairly easily and the state will keep its streak alive.

But what if Gingrich wins South Carolina? Could he really win the nomination? Well . . . yes.

South Carolina's Republican primary winner has always gotten the nomination because the state so perfectly represents what the party has become nationally. It is white, Southern, rural and suburban, values-oriented and largely blue collar.

If Gingrich can triumph in South Carolina, he can lead the national party it so closely resembles.

Say Gingrich wins South Carolina by a few points over Romney, followed by Ron Paul around 15 percent and Santorum in fourth. Santorum, with little money and no national organization, should leave the race.

Only one mainstream conservative, Gingrich, would be left, and the combined support of conservative voters in the race, which might then all gravitate to him, exceeds Romney's polling numbers in most states.

But if that happens, it may be impossible for Romney or Gingrich to capture the nomination before the convention, thanks to the often lovable Uncle Ron.

Paul will not quit. He believes passionately in his message, he has plenty of money, and he sees spreading the message of pacifist isolationism, fiscal conservatism and boundless liberty as his life's work.

And because of Republican rules changes that make the awarding of delegates in many state primaries proportional rather than winner-take-all, if Romney, Gingrich and Paul all stay in, there's a very good chance the primaries won't give any of them 50.1 percent of the delegates they need to seal the nomination.

And that might be best.

These three are so far apart they each agree more often with President Barack Obama than with each other. A group that includes supporters of both Ron Paul and Mitt Romney isn't really a coherent political party.

So the Republicans may have a very drawn-out, much-needed chance to define what their party actually stands for. Interventionism or isolationism? A shrinking federal government or a bloated one, but of a slightly less Democratic flavor? Personal liberties or Patriot Act regulations? Multigenerational, Harvard-educated wealth, or the school of hard knocks? A military veteran who wants the Army home, or a president who stayed home but wants the Army out in combat?

So does Saturday's primary matter as much as it has in past years? Given the possible consequences, it matters more than it ever has before.

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.