It’s that time of year when wags and pundits are supposed to gaze into their crystal ball and declare what the coming year holds. I don’t have a crystal ball. Never claimed to. But I don’t need one to tell you that 2012 is going to be a year of hard, mean politics in a state that is famous for bare-knuckled elections. And it all starts with the GOP primary in three weeks.

Since South Carolina Republicans made themselves the first primary in the South in 1980, they have achieved a perfect record: No candidate has won the Republican presidential nomination without first winning the South Carolina primary. This conservative little state saved the campaigns of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and George W. Bush in 2000, sending them to the White House when it looked like they might be headed for early retirement. It would be hard to overestimate the importance of this state in pushing the right-wing tilt of U.S. politics over the last 30 years.

That right-wing tilt has finally led the Republican Party to the logical and inevitable terminus, to the very brink of its own sanity. This year it looks like the Grand Old Party has finally stepped over that brink, and South Carolina has led the parade all the way.

The late William F. Buckley Jr. said he had spent his life separating the kooks from the conservatives. Today, the Republican Party has been taken over by the kooks, driven by the hype and hysteria of the Tea Party and the psychotic intransigence of Grover Norquist’s no-tax pledge and personified by the likes of Sarah Palin and Donald Trump. The GOP is dominated by gay-bashing, Jesus-loving nuts, who deny evolution and global climate change and think President Barack Obama is a Kenyan Muslim.

In recent years, Republicans have demonstrated their true loyalties, fighting to remove environmental regulations on polluters, FCC regulations on broadcasters, SEC regulations on Wall Street bankers, and fuel efficiency standards for automobiles. They call themselves the party of personal freedom, and they show their love by supporting legislation to protect the right of Americans to use obsolete incandescent light bulbs, but they would amend the Constitution to take away a woman’s right to make her own reproductive choices.

The circus of GOP presidential candidates has been crisscrossing the country in an interminable series of televised debates, where we have seen the party faithful applaud Rick Perry’s record of executions in Texas and a proposal to let uninsured people die for lack of healthcare. The flying circus will soon be landing in the Palmetto State to campaign for the Jan. 21 primary.

A recent NBC News-Marist poll shows former House speaker Newt Gingrich leading the field of seven candidates in this state. Let me say that again: Newt Gingrich, a serial adulterer who was fined $300,000 by the House Ethics Committee and was found last month to have received $1.6 million to lobby for the federal mortgage giant Freddie Mac, is the favorite of Republicans.

A victory in South Carolina would probably ensure Gingrich’s march to the GOP nomination, but, you see, Newt cannot win the White House. Normal, rational, ethical people will be repulsed by his arrogance, his personal behavior, and his unpredictable mouth. The same poll that showed Gingrich leading in the GOP primary race showed him losing to President Obama in the general election, 46 percent to 42 percent, in the Palmetto State. If Obama can challenge Gingrich in South Carolina, imagine what he will do in the more deliberative regions of the country.

The possibility of Gingrich carrying the GOP flag in next fall’s election has made Democrats absolutely giddy. They love Newt so much that they are planning to cross over and flood the GOP primary next month just to make sure he gets the win. This, of course, will lead to outraged squealing and squirting by aggrieved GOPers, demanding strict party registration in future primaries.

Oh, where will it end? Where will it end?

The other political story to watch next year involves Gov. Nikki Haley. It is hard to imagine how she has run afoul of so many rules and institutions in less than a year. Her mishandling of the Savannah River dredging may prove to be an epic fiasco. And now she has been found deleting office e-mails in violation of state law — this on top of a raft of other charges and suspicions. “I believe she is the most corrupt person to occupy the governor’s mansion since Reconstruction,” John Rainey, a longtime Republican fundraiser and power broker, said recently.

Will we see the Legislature or the attorney general move against her in 2012?

Stay tuned.