SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon, and the polls are open in South Carolina; first southern state to hold a primary in the race for the Republican presidential nomination of 2012, the stakes are critical. The state has picked the eventual nominee in every year since 1980, and it's sure been a turbulent week with Rick Perry dropping out, Iowa declaring Rick Santorum the winner of its caucuses and Newt Gingrich closing in on Mitt Romney.
Our reporters have been following the candidates around the state. We'll hear from all of them this morning: Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul. We start with Newt Gingrich, and NPR's Tamara Keith.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: In recent days, the former House speaker has surged in the polls with some showing him ahead of the longtime front-runner, Mitt Romney.
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KEITH: And when he arrived at the packed hall in Orangeburg greeted by an overflow crowd of hundreds, Gingrich almost seemed surprised by the reception.
NEWT GINGRICH: I'm just now beginning to realize that's an entire additional room. I thought at first it was one of those mirrors that was reflecting this room, and then I realized, no, there are that many additional people. Hello, people. That's pretty astounding. I am very impressed with this turnout, and I'm very, very grateful.
KEITH: Now, it's worth noting not everyone there actually supported Gingrich. There were undecided voters too like Wayne and Cheryl Walling, window shopping, but ready to buy.
WAYNE WALLING: If we had a combination of all of them, I think we'd be good, but we won't get that, of course; not this go-around.
CHERYL WALLING: We don't like any one particular person yet. I'm very disappointed we don't have somebody to grab a hold of and go.
KEITH: Gingrich's pitch to the Wallings and everyone else in the room was simple.
GINGRICH: The only effective conservative vote to stop a Massachusetts moderate is to vote for me. That's what all the polls are saying now.
KEITH: Though at a press briefing after the event, Gingrich nodded to the potential cracks in his campaign. He doesn't have a big operation or a lot of money. He claims he doesn't necessarily need that, but...
GINGRICH: Let me take this opportunity with all of these cameras to say we would love to have anybody who'd like to go to newt.org and donate. It would very helpful, and it will make Florida work much better.
KEITH: Win or not, Gingrich is going to take this fight to Florida. Tamara Keith, NPR News, following the Gingrich campaign.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: And I'm Scott Horsley traveling with the Mitt Romney campaign. As if persistent questions about his tax returns and the loss of his first-place finish in Iowa weren't enough, Romney had an election eve rally dampened by a steady rain. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley thanked the crowd who braved the storm outside a scenic barn.
GOVERNOR NIKKI HALEY: There is nothing more American than standing in the rain fighting for your country. I absolutely love that.
HORSLEY: Romney continues to play both offense and defense, touting new endorsements from the likes of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, while faulting his primary opponents as creatures of a dysfunctional Washington.
MITT ROMNEY: I've run businesses, I've helped run the Olympics, I've helped run a state. If you think running something is helpful to becoming President of the United States, then I've to be your choice.
HORSLEY: Polls suggest Romney's lead in South Carolina has evaporated in recent days, but he's still working hard to turn out supporters, and says he's cautiously optimistic about his chances here.
ROMNEY: I said from the very beginning South Carolina is an uphill battle for a guy from Massachusetts. I knew that. We're battling hard. The fact is that right now it looks like it's neck and neck. That's a pretty good spot to be in.
HORSLEY: But not the spot he hoped to be in a week ago. However he finishes here, Romney will come out of South Carolina with a large share of delegates, but his air of inevitability has been washed away in the southern rain. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Gilbert, South Carolina.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: This is Don Gonyea with Rick Santorum, who last night attended the annual dinner of the Republican Club at the Citadel, South Carolina's legendary military college. Here's Cadet Robert Sidel(ph).
ROBERT SIDEL: We are honored to have with us a true American patriot, Senator Rick Santorum.
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SIDEL: The newly minted winner of the Iowa caucuses.
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GONYEA: That last point is important because a number of these cadets went to Iowa as Santorum volunteers this past summer. Many more have been helping in South Carolina. Santorum bounded onto the stage wearing his trademark sweater vest.
RICK SANTORUM: I am in my fatigues, not in my dress outfit tonight. We've just come off the campaign trail, and this the - you, know, my flack jacket, if you will, my sweater vest.
GONYEA: In his remarks, Santorum barely touched on the issues, instead analyzing the race. He's behind in the polls, but there's been trouble in recent days for his rivals. For Newt Gingrich, new revelations from an ex-wife on a messy divorce, and for Mitt Romney, the questions about his taxes. Santorum likened it to the story of the three bears.
SANTORUM: We've got one candidate who's just a little cool, just a little timid.
GONYEA: That's Romney.
SANTORUM: And then you've got someone who's a little too hot.
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GONYEA: That would be Gingrich.
SANTORUM: And then you have someone who's just right.
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GONYEA: The evening ended with a standing ovation and the cadets singing "Dixie," as Santorum exited. Don Gonyea, NPR News at the Citadel.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: This is Debbie Elliott in Columbia, where a pumped up crowd greeted Ron Paul in a downtown bar last night.
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ELLIOTT: This is the last stop on the Texas congressman's whirlwind tour of South Carolina after a few days off the trail.
RON PAUL: If I go, you know, around the state and have - there's a great deal of enthusiasm, but I do know one thing. This whole ideological battle that we're in, this whole effort that we're having, it ain't going away.
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ELLIOTT: Coming off strong finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, polls here show him vying for third place with Rick Santorum.
PAUL: It's a tough road to hoe here in this state but believe me, the message will be there, and we will continue this struggle.
ELLIOTT: Supporter David Holton came up from Aiken, customized sign in hand.
DAVID HOLTON: It says Ron Paul Y'all.
ELLIOTT: Holton says it's time to stop policing the world and slow down what he describes as a runaway entitlement system.
HOLTON: I'm not an economist. I am a plumber though, but I do know I can't write a check for $2,000 to go out and by a new TV when I've got $100 in the bank. Now can I? The federal government can.
ELLIOTT: Holton says he hopes his vote gets the attention of what he calls the old Republican guard, and that Paul can pull enough delegates to move the GOP platform. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Columbia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.