JUDY WOODRUFF: The Republican presidential campaign came down to the wire in South Carolina today, with polls pointing to a two-man race in tomorrow's primary.
Erstwhile front-runner Mitt Romney started his day in Gilbert, S.C., acknowledging a late surge by Newt Gingrich.
MITT ROMNEY (R): And so I knew that we'd have a long road ahead of us. And, frankly, to be in a neck-and-neck race at this last moment is kind of exciting.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Later, in Orangeburg, Gingrich was upbeat.
NEWT GINGRICH (R): We are going to take the first big step towards ensuring that a conservative is nominated for president of the United States.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But Rick Santorum, campaigning in Lexington, painted first Gingrich, then Romney as unacceptable.
RICK SANTORUM (R): You have one candidate that's a little too radioactive, a little too hot. And then we have another candidate who's just too darn cold, who doesn't have bold plans.
JUDY WOODRUFF: South Carolina's voters were just hours away from having their say.
Gwen Ifill has been in the Palmetto State sampling opinion.
GWEN IFILL: These are the faces of the voters who, two years ago, changed the political calculus in South Carolina.
BO OLEKSUIK, Hilton Head Tea Party: The candidates are responding to the Tea Party message, and are playing to us, rather than the other way around.
GWEN IFILL: That Tea Party message, conservative, God-fearing, and worried about government intrusion, takes credit for electing six of their number to office in 2010, including a governor and five members of Congress.
This year, they've failed to come together behind a single candidate for president. So when the group held its first statewide convention this week, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum were eager to reach out.
RICK SANTORUM: We need someone who is unabashedly conservative in believing in the foundational principles of our country.
NEWT GINGRICH: And South Carolina has a chance to change history on Saturday. But to do that, we have to unify the Tea Parties and we have to unify the conservatives in a very straightforward way.
GWEN IFILL: Tea Party members say they want the country to return to the principles it was founded on.
BO OLEKSUIK: The foundation of our country was based on God and rights that God gave us, not rights that the government gave us.
CAROLYN CHURCH, Columbia Tea Party: Someone that won't compromise, someone that is a person who will seek God's direction in the decisions that they make in Washington, just like our founding fathers would have done.
GWEN IFILL: They're not all that crazy about the man who led in the polls in recent months, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whom they think is too moderate.
How is Mitt Romney doing with Tea Party voters?
ANN UBELIS, Beaufort Tea Party: In South Carolina, not too well. Maybe elsewhere in the country, where they're more moderate -- but where you have a true conservative movement in South Carolina, not very well.
GWEN IFILL: But they are concerned about the negative attacks the candidates are launching on each other.
PAT YOUMANS, South Carolina: I think they're killing each other off. I'm worried about that, really. We're going to have to overcome -- whoever is the survivor is going to have to overcome a lot of negatives. But they all have a lot of positives, too. We have a joke. If we could roll them all together, we'd have a perfect candidate.
GWEN IFILL: That's a common theme among South Carolina Republicans still trying to decide before tomorrow's voting begins.
ANN UBELIS: If you can take a little bit from each one of them and mold them into one person, a little Santorum, a little Gingrich, a little of Romney, Romney's business acumen, Gingrich's ability to address and debate, Rick Santorum's pure conservative principles, even a little Ron Paul with his -- fiscal conservative -- you will have a perfect candidate.
GWEN IFILL: That is the dilemma for the state's most prized voting bloc, motivated voters who want to deny the president a second term.
The numbers tell the tale. Four years ago, two-thirds of those who voted in the Republican primary identified themselves as conservative -- 60 percent of them said they were evangelical. And more often than not, whoever wins the primary here goes on to win the party's nomination.
Bob Oldendick, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina, says the candidates are splitting that valuable vote.
BOB OLDENDICK, University of South Carolina: You see the candidates that are trying to say, they all agree there should be one candidate. What they disagree on is they all think it should be them.
GWEN IFILL: At last night's debate in Charleston, each made his pitch to uncommitted conservatives.
Gingrich used the very first question from moderator John King about an explosive new interview given by his ex-wife Marianne to turn the tables.
JOHN KING, moderator: She says that you came to her in 1999, at a time when you were having an affair. She says you asked her, sir, to enter into an open marriage.
Would you like to take some time to respond to that?
GWEN IFILL: Gingrich eventually denied the allegations, but not before turning the potential mine field into an opportunity, and drawing a standing ovation by questioning the media.
NEWT GINGRICH: I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
GWEN IFILL: Paul emphasized his libertarian, small-government leanings.
REP. RON PAUL, R-Texas: Well, most of the things the federal government could do to get us back to work is get out of the way. I would like to see. . .
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
REP. RON PAUL: I would like to see the federal government have a sound currency. That creates a healthy economy.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
REP. RON PAUL: I -- I would like to see massive reduction of regulations. I would like to see income tax reduced to near zero as possible. And that is what we have to do.
GWEN IFILL: Romney said he is best positioned to defeat President Obama.
MITT ROMNEY: Ours is the party of free enterprise, freedom, markets, consumer choice. Theirs is the party of government knowledge, government -- government domination, where Barack Obama believes that he knows better for the American people what's best for them. He's wrong. We're right. That's why we're going to win.
GWEN IFILL: And Santorum said he is the only true conservative left in the race.
RICK SANTORUM: South Carolina, you've been told in the past, you've got to settle for a moderate because they can win, and you said the last time we had a situation like this, in 1980, you said, no, we're going to take the strong conviction conservative, and you voted for Reagan before Reagan was the Reagan we knew. Vote for the one who can do the job that America needs. Vote for me.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
GWEN IFILL: A daily drumbeat of new polls this week has shown Gingrich steadily closing in on Romney, turning what had been a double-digit lead into a likely photo finish.
One big switch, according to a NBC News-Marist survey, was among Tea Party supporters, who backed Romney 35 percent to 27 percent on Monday, but flipped to Gingrich 34 percent to 27 percent on Tuesday, after the week's first debate.
So the fight is on to prove who is the most worthy. Voters are thinking it through.
The Reverend Jesse Sellers pastors Park Baptist Church in Prosperity.
REV. JESSE SELLERS, Park Baptist Church: As an evangelical, I support Newt first of all because of his integrity and also because of his economic program, which I believe is the right program for the United States.
So far as integrity, he's a man who's been in the valley. He's experienced brokenness. He's experienced the things that we Christians and Southern Baptists hold dear to our hearts, which is repentance, humble himself before God. He's done that. We believe that his heart is sincere, and so we support him.
GWEN IFILL: Jerry Wheeles is a North Myrtle Beach businessman.
JERRY WHEELES, South Carolina: Gingrich has a lot of fan base. I think he generates a good bit of chemistry with people. But he's got a little bit of luggage. I do, too, of course.
JERRY WHEELES: But I'm not running for president.
NARRATOR: Obama supported the Wall Street bailouts. So did Romney.
GWEN IFILL: Those shades of gray disappear on television in the political ads, paid for by both the candidates and their deep-pocketed outside supporters that have blanketed the airwaves here this week.
NARRATOR: One is a serial hypocrite who lobbied for Freddie Mac before the housing crisis, another a counterfeit conservative who opposes right-to-work, finally, a flip-flopper who's been on all sides.
MAN: I agreed with Gov. Romney on many things. But this presidential candidate Romney, I don't even know the guy. Then again, he doesn't even seem to know himself.
MAN: Oh, come on.
MITT ROMNEY: I think this is an election about the soul of America.
GWEN IFILL: And the candidates have used their campaign rallies and speeches across the state to draw crystal-clear contrasts with each other and with President Obama. The president's approval rating stands at 44 percent here, and Romney, still seen as most able to win a general election, is counting on that unhappiness.
MITT ROMNEY: You have a president who is comfortable with trillion-dollar-plus deficits. We have never seen these until he came along. He's put together as much debt, almost as much public debt for this country as all the previous presidents combined.
RICK SANTORUM: Are you going to compromise? Are you going to vote for somebody who can win? Or are you going to vote for someone who is the right person for America?
REP. RON PAUL: It must be a lot more exciting to be involved in a campaign that really believes in something, you know, like our Constitution. That's a pretty good belief.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
NEWT GINGRICH: Any vote for Santorum, in effect, is a vote to allow Romney to become the nominee, because we have got to bring conservatives together in order to stop him.
GWEN IFILL: The University of South Carolina's Bob Oldendick says Romney's biggest stumble may have come when he admitted earlier this week that he paid a 15 percent tax rate in 2010, and said he didn't earn much from public speaking. Not much turned out to be more than $300,000 last year.
BOB OLDENDICK: That is one of those moments that, well, he really shouldn't have said that in South Carolina. For the average worker in South Carolina, that's 10 years. Not that much?
GWEN IFILL: So a race that was supposed to be over is most decidedly not.
Ann Ubelis of the Beaufort Tea Party came out yesterday to see Gingrich.
Perfection is elusive in politics. So, assuming that you don't get perfection, do you go for electable, someone who can beat Barack Obama?
ANN UBELIS: Actually, no. No compromise, no surrender. You go for your true principle. You vote on principle. And what shakes out in the end, then I'm sorry. You are going to hold your nose and you're going to vote for the Republican nominee. But you're going to go, no compromise, no surrender.
GWEN IFILL: Next stop: Florida.
RAY SUAREZ: And Gwen joins us now from Columbia, the capital of South Carolina.
Gwen, you've called this the single craziest week of the 2012 campaign. Have the 48 hours just ending now lived up to that billing?
GWEN IFILL: Completely lived up to that billing, Ray.
There are new polls out it seems every day. But the one interesting one we're watching today came from Clemson University, the Palmetto State poll, which -- one of the organizers of the poll who put it together, Dave Woodard, told me this afternoon that, on Monday, Mitt Romney was leading by 10 percentage points.
By Tuesday -- I mean, by today, we now have Newt Gingrich leading by 6 percentage points. Now, you can cut this and parse this a million different ways on margin of error and size of the sample. But there are at least half-a-dozen polls which show the momentum going this way.
And today, for the first time, we're hearing Mitt Romney say things like, well, I didn't really expect to do well here in South Carolina, which I don't believe he would have said even as little as a week ago.
So there's a big shift under way, and it's been remarkable to watch.
RAY SUAREZ: Have the campaigns had to spend a lot of money in South Carolina on TV? You mentioned how often, how ubiquitous those ads are.
GWEN IFILL: Well, not as much as Republicans end up spending in Florida, which is much more expensive.
The ads, you're right, Ray, are everywhere. And what we're hearing today from the Center for Public Integrity -- we asked them to look at these. The super PAC money, essentially, these outside groups that the Supreme Court allowed to be formed to raise money for candidates, they're not coordinating with the candidates, but they are raising money for them.
Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich are the ones who have raised the most money from these super PACs with prosaic names like Winning Our Future and Restore America. But, in truth, what's happening on the airwaves is incredible, almost unrelenting negatively paid for by a lot of the campaigns themselves -- like, Ron Paul's ads are some of the toughest on the air here -- but also a lot by these super PACs, who are just taking after each other in a way that could backfire in some way among some voters.
We heard the woman in that piece say they're going to going to blow each other up or some term like that. After a while, you begin to look at that and think to yourself, really, $3 million on ads in South Carolina? That's a lot of money. And that's how much both separately Ron Paul -- I mean, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich are spending.
And that's what you're seeing that causes so much of the volatility in these polling numbers.
RAY SUAREZ: You've reported on a 16-point swing between Romney and Gingrich, reported on the air war. But when you're out there face to face with the candidates and their crowds, do you get the sense that this is a very fluid race, that people are still in the process of making up or even changing their minds?
GWEN IFILL: Well, it's very interesting.
Usually, by the end, as you know, of these campaigns, this last week, we begin to see a little bit of blase set in on the part of voters. Could you just take this stuff off our television? Will the robo-calls stop coming to my house? Can you stop sending me direct mail?
We are still seeing hundreds of people show up at campaign rallies, in the case today here in this part of Carolina, in the driving, chilly rain to see people, to hear people. And that doesn't even count Stephen Colbert, who drew like 4,000 people with Herman Cain at the College of Charleston today in a completely joking way.
But the seriousness of this is that people are still curious. I talk to people. Everyone I have been talking to here talks to people who say they're really trying to decide. The pollsters at the Palmetto State poll said when they asked voters why they were changing their minds about candidates, why they were shifting from one to another, they couldn't really give a clear answer.
And so when we see last-minute issues like this infidelity question involving Newt Gingrich, when you see that arise, you think, is that what is shifting it? Well, we're in South Carolina, where the governor survived a scandal involving allegations about having an affair, which proved to be unproven, and where Mark Sanford, you'll remember, the former governor, also was -- ended up not being governor anymore, but wasn't impeached, which everyone thought when he was discovered to be cheating on his wife.
So, in some ways, voters are taking some of these cultural issues, factoring them in, and deciding what they really want is someone who will speak to their anger about their life situations, and especially among Republicans, change the people in charge in Washington.
RAY SUAREZ: The NewsHour's Gwen Ifill reporting from Columbia, S.C.
Good to talk to you, Gwen.
GWEN IFILL: Take care, Ray.