GOP Hopefuls Prepare To Debate In S.C.

Robert Siegel with NPR's Don Gonyea about Monday night's presidential candidate debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The Republican candidates meet again for a debate tonight in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. That state holds its primary this Saturday. But the field will be smaller by one as former Utah governor Jon Huntsman brought his campaign to an end.

JON HUNTSMAN: Today, I am suspending my campaign for the presidency. I believe it is now time for our party to unite around the candidate best equipped to defeat Barack Obama.

SIEGEL: On his way out, Huntsman endorsed former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, which may add at least some votes to Romney's lead in South Carolina. In tonight's debate, some of the other candidates may face some sharp questions about their attacks on Romney and his business history.

NPR's national political correspondent Don Gonyea is following the race in South Carolina and he joins us now from Myrtle Beach. Don, less than a week after his rather disappointing third place finish in New Hampshire, Jon Huntsman has ended his pursuit of the nomination, but I gather not before offering some advice to his former rivals. What did he say?

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Right. He did say that the party - those who will be voting in South Carolina and elsewhere down the road - need to pull together behind Mitt Romney, in part, to be able to beat President Obama in November. He says he is the most electable one. But he also sent this message about the general tone of the campaign to the other candidates. Here he is.

HUNTSMAN: This race has degenerated into an onslaught of negative and personal attacks not worthy of the American people and not worthy of this critical time in our nation's history.

SIEGEL: Well, there's another debate this evening in South Carolina. And Mitt Romney, I assume, will still be the target of the remaining four other rivals in the race for the nomination.

GONYEA: He will be, except there's no reason to think that anybody will emerge unscathed. There could be very tough questions for Newt Gingrich and for Ron Paul about the attacks they have made against Mitt Romney and Mitt Romney's career at Bain Capital. Rick Santorum has been rising a bit in the polls here and hopes to consolidate the conservative Christian vote so they could go after him as well. It seems everybody has an incentive to attack somebody else standing on that stage tonight and they'll be fewer of them.

SIEGEL: Don, one other point, all of those attacks against Mitt Romney - either Rick Perry calling him a vulture capitalist or the 28-minute online documentary that attacks his career at Bain - is there any evidence that's actually diminishing his support in South Carolina?

GONYEA: He's still ahead by a wide margin here. There are certainly people you talk to here anecdotally who are glad to see these kinds of attacks and they know it's something he would face in the fall, so they're happy to see the attacks now. But there's also the potential for some sympathy being created for Mitt Romney. I was at a Tea Party convention today and a guy there told me, he said, there are plenty of things to attack Mitt Romney on. This is not one of them. This is not where the attacks should be.

SIEGEL: And we should note that Rick Santorum does have a feather in his cap right now in South Carolina. He won the endorsement of an evangelical group over the weekend.

GONYEA: Right. That has the potential to be important. We'll still have to see how it plays out over the course of the week. But at this stage of the game, with two contests, Iowa and New Hampshire already, complete, the evangelicals met in Texas and did give their vote of support for Santorum.

He has been working it hard, as many as 60 percent of those who will vote in the South Carolina primary this weekend self-identify as evangelical. So that's a big block of voters. But again, no indication yet that they are starting to coalesce behind anyone, let alone Rick Santorum.

SIEGEL: That's NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Thanks, Don.

GONYEA: Thank you.

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