Since 2008, the GOP establishment has lived in fear of the Tea Party. Like beaten dogs, the traditional movers and shakers in the Republican Party have cowered before the easily angered men and women of the Tea Party. Every vote, every speech, every appearance on This Week with George Stephanopoulos made them tremble. One false move — one out-of-lockstep statement —and the Tea Party would be on them with a vengeance. But following Tuesday’s contest in New Hampshire and, more importantly, looking ahead to the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary, it is quickly becoming clear that the GOP establishment has remembered that they are the masters of the party and that the Tea Partiers are little more than a pack of wild dogs who need to be neutered and tied up in the backyard.

Yes, Ron Paul won’t stop barking. Newt Gingrich still hasn’t been housebroken. Jon Huntsman is still preoccupied with a chew toy. Rick Perry is still madly trying to bite the fleas on his backside. And Rick Santorum is still fond of dry humping all the other dogs in the kennel. But the members of the establishment have found the one puppy they want to rescue from the pound, the one they want to take home, the one they want to be part of the family: Mitt Romney.

Now, some of you might say that it’s still too early in the process for Romney to be declared the winner of the Republican nomination. There’s still South Carolina, Florida, and Super Tuesday, so it’s still anybody’s game. Yeah, you could say that, but you’d be wrong.

See, as I’ve said before, and as the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary will show, Palmetto State Republicans desperately need the winner of their contest to be the 2012 GOP nominee. It’s a matter of pride. After all, South Carolina has picked the Republican candidate every election since 1980, and if you know anything about us Sandlappers, it’s that we cling to our traditions, for good or ill.

Prior to the Iowa caucuses, Romney was not the leading choice of South Carolinians. Some days it was Perry. Others it was Herman Cain or Newt Gingrich. But after the Iowa caucuses in which Mitt was victorious — albeit barely — Romney finally moved to the top of the list.

Some say Romney’s emergence as the GOP frontrunner in the Palmetto State can be attributed to the Dec. 16 endorsement he received from S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley. Of course, the only people who say that are people who don’t live in South Carolina. In case you haven’t heard, the Haley administration has not only made one misstep after another, it’s quickly becoming clear to nearly all South Carolinians that their former darling Nikki just might be one of the most inept and corrupt governors in our fair state’s history. In fact, Haley’s approval rating in the Palmetto State, 35 percent, is considerably less than President Barack Obama’s.

Truth be told, Romney is all but guaranteed to win in South Carolina on Jan. 21 simply because he won on Jan. 3 and Jan. 10. It’s really that simple. After months and months — if not in the three years since Barack Obama won the presidency — the GOP establishment has finally convinced voters that he is the most likely to win in November.

Now, you may ask how I know this. Call it a hunch. Call it a guess. Call it a completely baseless prediction. But I’m not the only one who has seen the inevitable outcome of this contest. So has Jim DeMint.

Unlike he did in 2008, the South Carolina senator and Tea Party kingmaker hasn’t endorsed Romney — and it’s increasingly likely that he won’t, at least not directly. However, last night on The Mark Levin Show, DeMint made it clear that Mitt’s his man, proclaiming that Romney’s New Hampshire victory speech hit “a lot of the hot buttons for me about balancing the budget.” More importantly, he attacked those — like Newt and Perry — who have criticized Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital for being against “free market principles.”

If the man that many perceive to be the Tea Party standard bearer has thrown his support behind Romney, there are few diehard GOPers in South Carolina who won’t follow his lead. While it may be true that the Tea Partiers that make up the core of Ron Paul’s base are not yet ready to get onboard the Mitt Express, even the good doc himself has taken to defending Romeny against the attacks of Perry and Gingrich. Make no mistake, in time Paul will throw his support behind Romney, and many of his revolutionaries will do the same. Those who don’t will cast their vote for a third-party candidate in protest or simply stay home on Election Day and get high.

In the end, few in the GOP will ever be enthusiastic supporters of Mitt Romney, something that will surely hurt him as he faces off against Obama. But that’s to be expected. It’s hard for Republican voters to cheer for an establishment candidate and even more difficult to get excited about a return to the status quo, especially when you’ve spent the last four years raging against both.