Who's gaining, who's sliding ahead of the big day

January 20, 2012 

Polls suggest roughly one out of three South Carolinians could change their mind once they reach the voting booth on Saturday's GOP presidential primary.

Here's how the candidates stack up in the last day of campaigning in a race that now seems too close to call:

Mitt Romney: He performed better in Thursday’s debate than he did on Monday, still Romney got dinged for avoiding answers on releasing his tax returns and some rambling responses on other issues. And he was so busy on a tangent at one point, he forget the original question.

He has not fallen in the polls as much as Newt Gingrich has gained. The ad attacks have taken a toll and some voters have questions about his time as Massachusetts governor.

His wealth and stiffness in pubic is not helping, though he was warm meeting diners during a visit to Hudson’s Smokehouse in Lexington earlier this week.

South Carolina’s streak of eight straight presidential election cycles of picking the GOP nominee is on the line and should not be discounted in voters’ minds. No matter what happens on Saturday, Romney will have to fight harder in Florida than he did a week ago.

Newt Gingrich: In two days, he made a comeback that has put him in the lead in several polls -- gaining 10-plus points to zoom past Romney. That’s what a strong debate performance on Monday did along with Romney’s fumbles.

But his second wife’s interview with “Nightline” appears to have blunted some of Gingrich’s momentum. He was not as aggressive during Thursday’s debate (except on moderator John King). And Romney has revived a month-old TV ad featuring his wife, Ann, talking about character. Ouch.

Still, Gingrich has made this a tight race when it appeared Romney would run away with the primary. South Carolinians warm up to a Southerner. Gingrich is engaging even when he’s avoiding answers. Sarah Palin’s “vote for Newt” suggestion (not endorsement) is a plus as should Rick Perry's support.

Gingrich had been gaining in support among Evangelicals before the new accusations surfaced. It’s a matter how many voters are willing to be forgiving of his past.

Rick Santorum/Ron Paul: The Iowa win put a spring in Santorum’s step and helped him win Thursday’s debate. Great. Too late. His polling numbers have fallen even after getting the backing of national religious leaders last week.

Polls suggest his numbers are headed to Gingrich, sending the one-time second-place candidate into fourth place. Santorum should be happy to be among the final four.

Paul has stayed the course with his Libertarian message of less government, certainly popular in a state with an independent streak and where the Civil War started. (Who doesn’t want to get rid of the IRS?) His numbers have gained but stayed in the mid-teens. His electability is a huge stumbling block.

The pair should win enough support to head to Florida and keep this a four-man race.

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