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GUY RAZ, HOST:

From NPR News, it's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

And so we arrived at this day. Traditionally, the make-or-break moment in the Republican race to the nomination. The last poll taken overnight in South Carolina showed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich with a double-digit lead over Governor Mitt Romney. Both candidates focused their fire on the other today at a campaign stop in Greenville.

MITT ROMNEY: If we think that we need a Washington insider to run Washington, there are a lot of people to choose from. But I'm the only guy who spent his life in the real world. I'm in a fight to put America back to work.

NEWT GINGRICH: I am the only conservative who has an opportunity to stop a Massachusetts moderate, and I need the vote of every conservative in South Carolina today.

RAZ: South Carolina votes - that's our cover story today. Let's get right to our correspondent Don Gonyea. He's in Charleston at the Citadel with the Santorum campaign.

And, Don, it seems to me that the big story so far in South Carolina is the, I guess we should say, the re-resurrection of Newt Gingrich.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: This has been a remarkable year with candidates rising to the top and then falling back, sometimes due to self-inflicted wounds, sometimes because the other campaigns or surrogates for the other campaigns really opened up on them with negative ads.

The thing that I think the Romney campaign had not anticipated is that someone could rise again. And that's exactly what Newt Gingrich has done. He rose to the top just before the Iowa caucuses, faded. And the Romney campaign kind of thought, OK, that was the last of them we needed to vanquish. Here we are with Gingrich seeming to have all of the momentum again in South Carolina.

RAZ: That's incredible. What is Mitt Romney's strategy going forward if, in fact, he loses to Newt Gingrich tonight?

GONYEA: That's going to be interesting. You could hear in that piece of tape just a moment ago at that place in Greenville. You could hear kind of a strain in Romney's voice. You can hear him kind of shouting to be heard. We have not seen Mitt Romney in that kind of a mode. His events have always been so controlled and so well-staged. And he's rarely talked about his opponents. He's always talked about President Obama.

So if Newt Gingrich wins here in South Carolina, if Romney doesn't do really well, then I think you look for a different kind of Romney campaign in Florida. Still one that paints him as inevitable and the only guy who'll be able to attract votes in the general election enough to beat President Obama, but probably a much more aggressive, much more confrontational Mitt Romney.

RAZ: We can expect him essentially to go after Newt Gingrich.

GONYEA: He's going to have to if today goes the way polls indicate that it might. Again, we have to wait till the votes are counted.

RAZ: Don, this is an open primary. Democrats can vote as well. We probably expect mostly Republicans to vote. Do voters in the state seem excited? Are they engaged about this vote?

GONYEA: It's funny, you have to be careful not to compare it to Iowa and New Hampshire, because those two are so intense and they're so activist-driven. South Carolina is a different kind of place. It's bigger, it's diverse. You can walk down Charleston, where I am today, and almost not even know that there's a primary going on today, unless you saw the headlines on the paper, there's a smattering of yard signs here and there. But we are hearing that in some places, voter turnout is very heavy; in some places, it's very light; in some places, it's steady to moderate. But you don't get the feeling you get in those earlier primaries.

RAZ: It's going to be an exciting night. That's Don Gonyea in Charleston. Don, thanks.

GONYEA: It's my pleasure.

RAZ: Now, while South Carolina tends to anoint the GOP nominee, it's also home to a particular brand of politics. Some call it dirty politics. We asked Danielle Vinson, chair of the political science department at Furman University in Greenville to explain why.

DANIELLE VINSON: South Carolina is the last stand. If you don't come out of here in first or second place, it's hard to keep going. And so by the time they get here, they kind of know who the front-runner is and they start going after him and he starts going after them.

RAZ: And there have been several examples of this, most famously, I guess, is the case when there was a whispering campaign saying that John McCain had fathered an illegitimate child with an African-American prostitute. That was in 2000. How far back does this kind of campaigning go?

VINSON: Oh, at least to the '70s, if not before. One of the more famous political operative in the state was Lee Atwater. And he made it very clear that nothing was off limits when it came to campaigns, public or private.

RAZ: Lee Atwater, of course, was a legendary GOP operative. And in 1989, he seemed to suggest that the incoming Democratic House speaker in Washington, Thomas Foley, was gay. That prompted Bob Dole to stand up on the floor of the U.S. Senate and say this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

BOB DOLE: This is not politics. This is garbage.

RAZ: But it also cuts across party lines, right? Danielle, I mean, Dick Harpootlian, who's a well-known Democratic operative, called Lindsey Graham, the current U.S. senator in the state, light in his loafers.

VINSON: Hmm. Oh, yeah. I mean, both parties have engaged in the mudslinging over the years. And at times, it's worked, but I think in recent history, it has not been as successful. It often backfires on them, and the candidate that's being attacked gets something of a sympathy vote from it.

RAZ: You're saying that these negative attacks actually backfire?

VINSON: Yeah. Go back to our gubernatorial primary just two years ago. Nikki Haley was being - people are making allegations that she had been unfaithful to her husband.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Nikki Haley fighting a second claim she's had an affair. But now, she's dealing with an ethnic slur.

VINSON: And she actually ended up winning the primary in part because people didn't think she had been treated fairly during the campaigning.

RAZ: And it seems like, even more recently, with the story about Newt Gingrich and his messy divorce from his second wife, her claims that he asked for an open marriage. When Newt Gingrich pushed back on that during the recent debate, the audience cheered wildly.

JOHN KING: She says you asked her, sir, to enter into an open marriage. Would you like to take some time to respond to that?

GINGRICH: No. But I will.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

RAZ: If the voters aren't receptive to it, why do you think that it persists? I mean, who's responsible? Is there a certain kind of - a certain type of political operative that just happens to live in South Carolina and work there?

VINSON: Well, I don't know that it's unique to South Carolina. I'm sure that other places must have negative campaigning. But I do think, you know, our political operatives don't mind taking the gloves off when it comes to campaigning, which is funny given the reputation of the state for being relatively polite. But sometimes in the primaries, there's not that much difference on the issues. So the political operatives go for the private lives as a way to separate the candidates.

RAZ: But it sounds like, though, you would argue that South Carolina gets a bad rap. Every four years, people talk about this. They talk about the dirty politics of South Carolina. But maybe it's all just a little exaggerated.

VINSON: Some of it's exaggerated. But also keep in mind, not all of this is South Carolina's (unintelligible). You know, a lot of what's going on in the presidential primaries over the years has actually been outside groups coming in and paying for phone call from the state. So we can't take credit for all the nastiness.

RAZ: That's political scientist Danielle Vinson from Furman University. The key to winning in South Carolina is winning over social and religious conservatives. This year, says Richard Land, who's the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, those voters have a dilemma.

RICHARD LAND: Evangelicals make up 60 percent of the votes in South Carolina. And it's also true that South Carolina has voted for the person who became the Republican candidate every year since 1980. I mean, the base of the Republican Party is the old South. And South Carolina represents that.

RAZ: Do you think that social and religious conservatives right now face a dilemma? I mean, we don't know what's going to happen tonight. But, say, Mitt Romney is the GOP nominee, is that going to pose a major dilemma for people like you?

LAND: No, I don't think so. Mitt Romney is a more reliable social conservative in 2012 than he was in 2008, because he's been that longer.

RAZ: So why so much suspicion over him?

LAND: Well, I mean, look, it's not his Mormonism. If he had been more Mormon on the social issues that matter most to social conservatives, they'd be less concerned about it.

RAZ: You're talking about abortion, for example.

LAND: Sanctity of human life and same-sex marriage. If he'd held the position that his church holds his whole political career, there'd be virtually no doubts about his social conservatism.

RAZ: I've read a quote from one prominent evangelical leader who said: It's not Mitt Romney's Mormonism that worries me, it's how the Mormon church will market him in their bid to convert others to the faith around the world. Are there some evangelicals who feel threatened by that idea?

LAND: Sure. Look, if a Mormon becomes president, it will mainstream Mormonism in a way that Mormonism has not been mainstreamed before. In the same way that when you had an evangelical president, it mainstreamed evangelicalism in a way it had been mainstreamed.

RAZ: You're talking about George W. Bush.

LAND: Yes.

RAZ: But you would argue that evangelicalism wasn't considered mainstream before that? I mean...

LAND: No. Not as much as it was after he was elected and certainly not as much as it was before Ronald Reagan.

RAZ: What about Jimmy Carter?

LAND: Well, when Jimmy Carter ran for president, people said: Born again, what's that mean? Is he a snake handler? What is that?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LAND: The national media had no idea what a born again Christian was in 1976. Jimmy Carter had to try to explain it to them, as well as a lot of the rest of us.

RAZ: So you're saying that if Mitt Romney becomes President Romney, the fear among some evangelicals is that it will mainstream Mormonism?

LAND: Well, it'll certainly increase the mainstreaming. But I think if Romney is the only one who runs even or looks viable against Obama come nomination time, he will be the nominee. I know more social conservatives - Catholic and evangelical - who are following the William F. Buckley dictum this time than ever before. The late William F. Buckley Jr., his dictum was this: I'm for the most conservative candidate who can get elected.

RAZ: Let me turn to some of the other candidates in the race, particularly Newt Gingrich who, of course, has surged in recent days and could, in fact, win this primary. Why haven't social and religious conservatives rallied around him?

LAND: He does have baggage in his past. And, you know, they intuitively feel that if you're going to be the party of family values, you better walk the walk. And there have been times in Mr. Gingrich's past when he has not walked the walk. I mean, after all, he's the first presidential candidate that has two ex-wives.

RAZ: I know that you don't personally endorse candidates, Richard Land, but you know a lot of social and religious conservatives who have indeed endorsed Rick Santorum.

LAND: Yes.

RAZ: Do you think Rick Santorum could beat Barack Obama?

LAND: Yes. And when people say, come on. In January of 2008, who thought Barack Obama could beat Hillary Clinton? Barack Obama and his wife, maybe a few others, that's it. I mean, in this 24/7 news cycle that we live in now, Barack Obama is the poster child for the fact that you can become a nationally known figure very, very quickly.

RAZ: That's Richard Land with the Southern Baptist Convention. More politics in a moment with Jim Fallows and why some pecan farmers are now packing heat to protect their harvest.

That's next up on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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