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Rivals Try To Chip Away At Romney's Lead


All right. Columbia, where Ari was reporting, has already become a destination for other GOP candidates. Mitt Romney's rivals have moved to South Carolina as well. Maybe there, they hope, they can stop the Romney campaign before it becomes unstoppable.

Here's NPR's Brian Naylor.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Ron Paul, who finished a rather distant second behind Mitt Romney in New Hampshire, arrived in Columbia at noon yesterday. He spoke to a few hundred supporters in a hangar at the Columbia airport, saying his finishes in New Hampshire and Iowa were sending a message that will be continued in South Carolina.

RON PAUL: About four years ago, we were much smaller in numbers and I always talk about, you know, the tireless irate minority that leads the charge. But we're not so small, we're not so much a minority, we're marching on. The numbers are growing. They grew exponentially in New Hampshire and they're going to grow continuously here in South Carolina as well.


NAYLOR: Paul was a good fit in New Hampshire, where the motto is live free or die. And while the small government/Libertarian part of his message should play well in South Carolina, it's an open question whether the rest of it will.

One potential problem: Paul has called for bringing home all U.S. troops based overseas and ending the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. South Carolina is home to military installations, such as Fort Jackson, just outside Columbia, and the military plays an important role in the state's economy.

Andy Luder, wearing a Veterans for Paul t-shirt, served in the Army and National Guard, and he's optimistic Paul's views may not be such a tough sell here.

ANDY LUDER: I don't think it is, to be honest with you. A lot of us - I mean, I've seen combat in Iraq and I don't want - there's no sense in doing that kind of stuff if there's no good reason in the defense of the country to do it.

NAYLOR: For Jon Huntsman, who put all his chips on New Hampshire and finished third, the path forward in South Carolina isn't clear. The former Utah governor has little money for TV ads nor any apparent organization in the state. Speaking to students at the University of South Carolina, he suggested voters here don't want to be told whom to support, an apparent reference to Governor Nikki Haley, who's endorsed Romney.

JON HUNTSMAN: They will not allow the establishment to tee up their favorite candidate. That's just not how the people of this state work. These people are going to evaluate the candidates - all of us - and you are going to look at what it is we stand for, where we've been, how consistent we are on our record, and I think whether or not in the end we're the kind of person who would put country first.

NAYLOR: Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum came within eight votes of Romney in Iowa but finished much further behind in New Hampshire, where it's thought the lack of evangelical and socially conservative voters limited his appeal. That shouldn't be a problem in South Carolina, where faith and politics are often intertwined. Appearing at a town hall meeting last night outside of Columbia, Santorum was asked about his faith.

RICK SANTORUM: We've been called on a mission here, we feel - and we could be wrong. I don't have perfect knowledge, let me assure you. That's what we feel we've been called to do and we continue to pray for the grace to do it as well as we can and I'm not ashamed to - in fact, I'm very proud of the fact to thank God publicly for the grace that he's given me today and hope that He continues to do so.

NAYLOR: For businessman Ray Basham(ph), who was undecided, Santorum made the sale.

RAY BASHAM: First of all, you know, a man of faith, especially in this day and age, is rare. I believe he is that and we certainly need, you know, all the faith in these trying times that we can get. And he came across that way tonight. Well, he's a family man.

NAYLOR: And while Santorum can't match Romney's campaign bankroll, he does have enough cash on hand to air some TV spots. He told his supporters, though, that he needs to do more than merely vote for him, but to spread the word to their friends and neighbors as well or, he says, he'll lose. It's advice all those candidates who are not Mitt Romney would do well to follow.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Columbia, South Carolina.


Now, while South Carolina's primary is next, people in Florida are already voting. That's the first really big state to vote. Hundreds of thousands of Republican absentee ballots have already been mailed to military personnel and other Floridians out of state. Many have already returned the absentee ballots. And the formal primary day is coming up soon - the last day of January. Mitt Romney is holding a rally today in Florida's Palm Beach County.

At the same time, President Obama and his aides are carefully positioning him for the contest coming this fall. The Associated Press says there are daily conference calls now between top aides in the White House and Obama campaign staff at the Chicago reelection headquarters.


INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.