WASHINGTON — If expert predictions and opinions come true, Mitt Romney may have to come up with another analogy after the South Carolina primary results are totaled tonight.

There is no Olympic medal for fourth place.

Romney, who ran the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, has equated his past primary performances to silver medals in New Hampshire and Iowa where he took second place, and gold medals from Wyoming and Michigan. So far South Carolina may be his first bronze — or no medal at all — of the campaign season.

It depends who turns out to vote.

The former Massachusetts governor seems to realize his chances of getting to the imaginary awards podium for first southern state primary being held today are slim. Despite visiting the state repeatedly throughout 2007, Romney chose to only campaign in the Palmetto State on Wednesday and part of Thursday leading up to the primary. Instead, he headed west to shore up support in Nevada, where the Republican Caucus is also taking place today. He will spend most of today in Florida, where voters go to the polls on Jan. 29.

Since the 2008 presidential nomination process began in earnest last year, South Carolina had been deemed as an important test for Romney because of its high number of evangelical Christian voters. Romney is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and many evangelicals don't view Mormons as fellow Christians.

But that was before former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an ordained minister, emerged as a viable GOP candidate by virtue of his win in the Iowa Caucus, explained Paul Peterson, political science professor at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C.

Peterson predicted Huckabee would finish higher than Romney, but a vote for Huckabee is not necessarily a vote just against the Mormon candidate as much as a vote in favor of Huckabee outright. It would not surprise him if Romney finished fourth.

Dan Gilgoff, politics editor at Beliefnet.com, who is in South Carolina, said a lot of the voters he has talked to have said Romney's faith is one of the factors in deciding to not support him. But Gilgoff, who also is the analyst behind the God-O-Meter, in collaboration with Time Magazine, said Romney will not lose the evangelical vote there entirely.

A more positive potential scenario for Romney comes from Blease Graham, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina. He said Romney might do better than expected.

"I don't think the Mormonism is as much an issue as the sensationalists would want it to be," Blease said. "A 'fringe' may doodle horns on Romney's picture, but it is a peripheral issue."

Blease said beyond the evangelicals that go for Huckabee and a large veteran population expected to go for Arizona Sen. John McCain, Romney could pick up "the real people you never hear about."

He said textile jobs are disappearing from the state in the same way auto jobs are disappearing from Michigan, so Romney's focus on research and innovation also may resonate with South Carolina voters to help bring jobs back to the state.

Peterson said that when Romney was campaigning early in South Carolina, he was getting through to evangelicals, including receiving an endorsement from Bob Jones III, president of Bob Jones University, an evangelical Christian school.

"But he is hurt by the flip-flopper idea," Peterson said.

In previous campaigns, Romney described himself as supporting abortion rights, but has claimed repeatedly and unapologetically on the campaign trail that he has had a change of heart on the issue and is now against abortion.

Peterson did note, though, that while Romney may have lost some evangelical voters to Huckabee or to former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, who is campaigning hard in the state, Romney could pick up some undecided voters.

A Clemson University poll released earlier this week had Romney in third place, but Thompson was not far behind. The poll placed McCain in first, followed by Huckabee.

Bruce Ransom, a political science professor at Clemson, said Romney's visits to Nevada and Florida "means he's not going to fight for the South." And because the other candidates are in South Carolina campaigning, that could put Thompson up and push Romney down.

But Ransom said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who is campaigning on behalf of Romney, could help bring him some evangelical voters too, which may help.

Even if Romney doesn't take home any medal from South Carolina, Peterson said he does not think it hurts his campaign one way or another, with Florida's primary and the so-called Super Duper Tuesday on Feb. 5, just around the corner.

"South Carolina is old news pretty quickly," said Peterson, who thinks that in the overall election cycle so far, Romney has been winning the Republican vote and that he will likely fare better in Republican-only elections. Up to this point, none of the contests has been closed, meaning voters have been allowed to register as independents to pick a ballot on Election Day or change their registration to vote on either the Democratic or Republican ticket.

Peterson said Romney could survive through Feb. 5, even with a South Carolina loss, because of the remaining delegates to be won on Super Duper Tuesday and because of his "deep pockets."

Gilgoff said Romney appeals to more "mainstream, middle-of-the-road" Republicans, and he needs to get a coalition of a lot of different constituencies.

"Every primary opens up the field more and more," Gilgoff said.

E-mail: suzanne@desnews.com