GOP candidates get ready to rumble in South Carolina

The brawl, known as the S.C. Republican presidential primary, is on.

After he nearly bowed out of the race Tuesday, Rick Perry’s new plan is to claw his way back to the top of the pack in the Palmetto State, regaining his mantle as the anti-Mitt Romney candidate for conservative Republicans.

Surging Rick Santorum is set to scrap with Perry for the coveted anti-Romney title in South Carolina, a state not yet sold on Romney as the eventual GOP nominee. The former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania is experiencing a bounce after securing a virtual tie with Romney in the Iowa caucuses Tuesday. But he needs a good showing in South Carolina to prove his Iowa performance wasn’t a fluke.

Meanwhile, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is expected to go on the attack — against Romney. Gingrich reportedly is seething after a Romney-affiliated super-political action committee spent millions to run negative ads about the former speaker in Iowa.

The Palmetto State hosts the first-in-the-South primary on Jan. 21. Voters in that primary correctly have picked the eventual Republican nominee since 1980.

“We are known for rumbling in South Carolina, and it’s coming,” said Katon Dawson, a S.C. adviser to Perry and former chairman of the state Republican Party. “We’re now the underdog. This race is wide open, and we’re ready to fight it out.”

Gingrich struck the first blow Wednesday with a full page, anti-Romney ad in New Hampshire’s Union Leader newspaper. A Gingrich-affiliated super PAC, Winning Our Future, also is planning TV ads that could air in South Carolina and other states, hitting Romney on a range of issues, according to media accounts.

Adam Waldeck, Gingrich’s S.C. campaign director, disagreed that Gingrich is angry with Romney. Instead, he added, “You can expect him to tell the truth about Romney’s record and frame the choice between a Reagan conservative and a Massachusetts moderate.”

Watching it all will be Romney, who Wednesday received the endorsement of 2008 GOP nominee John McCain, the U.S. senator from Arizona who won the S.C. primary in 2008. Romney is expected to sweep the New Hampshire primary Tuesday — he has a double-digit lead there, according to polls — and ride a wave into South Carolina, where he has enjoyed either the No. 1 or No. 2 polling spot since the summer.

South Carolina has a reputation for endorsing the Republican establishment’s candidate; this year, it’s Romney. A win here could give the former Massachusetts governor a rare Iowa-New Hampshire-South Carolina sweep and move him close to clinching the GOP nomination.

Perry’s decision to stay in the race gives Romney an added boost, dividing voters who might otherwise coalesce around a single conservative opponent.

“Perry staying in will definitely help Romney,” said Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political scientist and pollster. “Especially to the degree it splits the votes of the evangelical voters, the social conservative voters and the ‘ABR’ — ‘Anybody But Romney’ — voters.”

Romney’s South Carolina supporters hope to sell Republicans on the idea that Romney is the only GOP candidate who can take the fight to President Barack Obama in 2012.

“It’s going to be a case with one candidate coming into South Carolina with a lot of momentum and a head full of steam and the ability to beat Obama,” said Luke Byars, an S.C. consultant for Romney. “The other candidates are going to have to resort to some negative tactics.”

All four will work to pick up S.C. supporters of Michele Bachmann.

The Minnesota congresswoman said Wednesday that she is dropping out of the race after a disappointing last-place finish in her home state of Iowa.

As of Wednesday, her former S.C. supporters were splitting among Perry, Romney and Santorum, said Wes Donehue, a former S.C. Bachmann consultant.

“The only one I’m not hearing about is Newt,” Donehue said. “He appears to be flaming out pretty good.”

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