COLUMBIA, S.C. — The most important primary yet is just one day away, and the race for the Republican presidential nomination is heating up. The two front-runners are virtually neck and neck, and what seemed a cakewalk for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is turning into a fierce battle for the hearts and minds of the electorate.
At a rally in Columbia, the state capital, on Wednesday night, Romney sounded every inch the presidential candidate: he barely referred to his opponents from within the GOP, concentrating on positioning himself against the incumbent, President Barack Obama.
“This election presents a very distinct choice between two very different paths,” he said. ”President Obama draws his inspiration from socialist welfare states of Europe, while I look to the towns and cities of America!”
More from GlobalPost: Will Ron Paul spoil the Republican party?
The crowd was enjoying it, although Romney’s support remains soft. He enjoys his front-runner standing mostly because the Republican electorate is determined to unseat Obama in November, and they see Romney as their best shot.
“I think Romney can beat Obama,” said local businessman Bill Aldredge. “I like the way he handled the Olympics.”
Romney often refers to his stint as manager of the Salt Lake City Games in 2002. He is widely credited with turning a troubled venture into a resounding success.
The rally was a slick and professional affair, complete with volunteers passing out packets of “Grits for Mitt” — southern cornmeal with the candidate’s name prominently displayed.
Romney’s religion, added Aldredge, was not an issue, even in strongly Baptist South Carolina.
“Better a Mormon than a Muslim,” he added.
Obama, whose middle name is Hussein, has been trying to put that calumny to rest since he ran in 2008; but here in the South, doubts persist.
More from GlobalPost: Photos: Ron Paul supporters in all their glory
If Romney wins by a convincing margin on Saturday, he is virtually assured the nomination. But former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is gaining momentum by the hour. Recent polls show the two men neck and neck.
For the past few days, though, neither prospective candidate has been having a very easy time of it.
First of all, Romney had his “historic first” ripped from his hands when Iowa finally released the results of the Iowa caucus; instead of the razor-thin margin of eight votes that Romney had been given on Jan. 3, the state now says that former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum won by 34 votes.
Now Romney can no longer boast that he is “the first ever non-incumbent Republican to win both Iowa and New Hampshire.”
The exact outcome in Iowa may never be established for certain: some precincts seem to have lost count of their “ballots” — plain strips of paper on which voters write the name of their candidate. There was no electronic tabulation, and it is not surprising that a recount would give slightly different results.
More from GlobalPost: Republican candidates struggle on foreign policy
Romney still looks like the man to beat, although his juggernaut may be weakening.
Gingrich, who is from neighboring Georgia, is very popular here. At a town meeting in Beaufort, S.C., on Thursday, he wooed the crowd with talk of America’s greatness, ridiculing Obama for backing down on Iran, for rejecting the Keystone Pipeline from Canada, and, most harshly, for closing down Disney World for a campaign event on Thursday.
“But when I pictured Obama flanked by Mickey Mouse on the one hand, and Goofy on the other, I felt much better,” he said, to loud laughter from the audience.
The former speaker got a boost when Texas Governor Rick Perry dropped out of the race on Thursday, endorsing Gingrich. Perry’s star has been falling for months, in the wake of disappointing performances in numerous televised debates.
But Gingrich has been plagued by personal troubles. His second ex-wife, Marianne, went on ABC Thursday evening to attack Gingrich’s moral fiber, saying he had asked her for an open marriage to pursue his affair with then Congressional aide Callista Bisek, now the third Mrs. Gingrich.
Many voters will brush aside the personal debris, preferring to concentrate on the issues.
Gingrich himself blames the media for all the fuss. At the debate in Charleston Thursday night, he railed against the “vicious, destructive, negative nature of the media,” and excoriated moderator John King for beginning the evening with questions about Gingrich’s character.
“I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate with a topic like that,” he said, calling it “despicable.”
In Beaufort on Thursday, though, Gingrich was more conciliatory. When former Marine Corps drill sergeant Will McCullough asked him to give an accounting of his “questionable” personal history, Gingrich gave a thoughtful response.
“I have been very open about this,” he said. “I have made mistakes. I have gone to God for forgiveness … the people have got to decide” whether he is fit to be president.
McCullough was not convinced.
“I believe he spoke genuinely,” said the former Marine. “But this did not put my fears to rest.”
McCullough has not yet decided whether to support Gingrich, but he has made one firm choice: he will not vote for Romney.
“If Romney is the candidate, I will abstain,” he said. He sees little difference between the incumbent and the former Massachusetts governor.
“I think Barack Obama will speed the decline of America,” he said. “Romney will just manage that decline more efficiently.”
Asked which name he would really like to see on the ballot, McCullough did not hesitate.
“Ron Paul,” he said.
Paul is polling a distant third in South Carolina, although the Texas Congressman may still play a spoiler role in the general election.
But for now, all eyes are on South Carolina, and the two men whose fates may be decided on Saturday.