CHARLESTON, SC (KTRK) --Charleston, South Carolina is brimming with southern charm, like much of the Palmetto State.
It's not Iowa or New Hampshire, but it is an early voting state in the GOP primary and critical to any candidate's long term success.
"South Carolina is just as important as any other state," state party chair Matt Moore told Eyewitness News. "I think quite more important. It's really the first test of a large, diverse republican electorate."
Candidates come here early and often. The non-profit website p2016.org reports candidates have made 204 visits since 2013 and spent 271 days here.
It is the first southern state to cast votes in the primary season.
"You've got to appeal to all three traditional constituencies in the party," said Moore. "Social, fiscal, and military focused voters. And so it's a real test."
Eyewitness News was with Texas Senator Ted Cruz when he made a swing through the state in 2014, some six months before he announced his candidacy.It's part of a national strategy according to his national campaign spokesman Rick Tyler.
"Iowa, NH, and SC all want to pick the winner, the one that's going to go on to the nomination," said Tyler. "So what's interesting about this year is that the single state strategy is not working well for the other candidates."
Ted Cruz is a candidate on the upswing right now. In a crowded field, he's emerged as a front runner in early states. He drew hundreds to a rally in a rural part of South Carolina Wednesday night and they were engaged.
"The energy and excitement we're seeing in South Carolina and all across the state of South Carolina could not be more encouraging," Cruz told reporters after his event.
The first term Texas senator is also drawing the attention of other candidates. Namely, Donald Trump, who mentioned the Texas Senator in his own Wednesday night event in Florida, challenging his eligibility. Cruz was born in Canada to an American mother, but is constitutionally eligible.
The campaign is also responding to a New York Times report that he didn't properly report a near half million dollar loan to his 2012 Senate campaign. It was money that was borrowed against his own brokerage accounts. The campaign said it was an inadvertent filing error and is asking the FEC for guidance.
These are distractions his campaign says are to be expected for a candidate with solid, consistent upward momentum.
"When you do get toward the top tier then people want to tear you down," said Tyler. "Now unfortunately for them the attacks on Senator Cruz have not stuck."
Thursday night's debate could go a long way in augmenting that upswing or stalling it just weeks from the Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina.