New Hampshire voters have made the despicable decision to make it really clear who they're going to vote for a year, meaning South Carolina has to keep the Republican primary interesting all by itself. The state's January 21 primary is the last chance for conservatives to stop Mitt Romney, Politico's Alexander Burns and Emily Schultheis report. "South Carolina will become the ground on which an 'ABM' movement starts to coalesce -- the anybody-but-Mitt crowd," Republican strategist Tucker Eskew told Politico. It's fitting the movement shares its initials with (warning: dad joke incoming) the anti-ballistic missile because South Carolina is where politics is like nuclear warfare-level mean.
"This is a mean state," said Katon Dawson, a senior Rick Perry advisor told the Los Angeles Times' Michael Finnegan. "It's going to get personal." (On the other hand, Perry's campaign has been promising to be super mean for a months, but he's only fallen in polls.) Ron Paul is already running radio ads calling Newt Gingrich a "counterfeit conservative." Rick Santorum is likely to get the same treatment soon. Gingrich's campaign told The New York Times' Trip Gabriel that he'll be running ads there calling Romney a "Massachusetts moderate."
South Carolina is where mysterious callers falsely told voters that John McCain's adopted daughter was the product of an affair with a black woman. McCain is returning to the scene of the crime Thursday to campaign with Romney. It might be a tough sell. Wesley Donehue, a Romney consultant in the state in 2008, told Finnegan, "Pitching Romney to South Carolina was like trying to sell a rib-eye to a vegetarian." (That's the other fun thing about the state -- the locals use such colorful language!) Gov. Nikki Haley, Tea Party favorite, has endorsed Romney, but NPR's Frank James reports that might have hurt Haley more than it helped Romney. "We definitely feel betrayed by that," Spartenberg Tea Party leader Karen Martin told James, whose story is headlined, "South Carolina Tea Partiers Wish Romney Would Just Go Away."Still, Politico's Jonathan Martin writes that with Perry deciding not to quit the race after his fifth-place finish in Iowa, the conservative vote could still be splintered enough for Romney make it through.