LEESVILLE, S.C. -- The retail politicking head start that Texas Gov. Rick Perry has gotten on his rivals in the Republican presidential field ends this morning, as the other contenders pack up their New Hampshire shops and journey south.
Mr. Perry appeared to be savoring that solo time with voters during his campaign stop here Tuesday evening, which was the last of seven he held in recent days as the only GOP contender in the Palmetto State.
Both he and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum held events here on Sunday, but, unlike Mr. Santorum, the Texas governor chose not to compete in New Hampshire following his fifth-place finish in Iowa.
"Where's Gov. Perry tonight? In South Carolina, where it's really going to make a difference," noted Marion Frye, the local state legislator who introduced him to diners at Shealy's BBQ.
With the Iowa and New Hampshire balloting doing little to clear the field and 10 days until the "first in the South" primary, South Carolina is shaping up to be a major political battlefield.
Voters here already have seen more than double the number of political ads viewed by their New Hampshire counterparts, according to a report by Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group, and more are on the way. Both the campaigns and political action committees backing certain candidates have committed large sums -- including $3.4 million from pro-Newt Gingrich's PAC and $2.3 million from a pro-Mitt Romney group -- on new television advertising for the coming days.
"We've seen the nice biographical ads so far, with their families and sunsets," said David Woodard, a Clemson University political science professor. "That's likely to go away around Thursday or so. It's always been nasty here, but I think it's a little more this time."
Many among the state's staunchly conservative voters say they remain wide open about their choice, often saying they never recommitted after the initial candidate they liked dropped from the race.
"It started out that I had someone picked out, and then whatever happened happened with them," said Butch Loy, a retiree from Batesburg who listened to Mr. Perry speak Tuesday evening.
The Iowa results were a useful guide for some others, like Chris Reagan, who began to look at Mr. Santorum more closely. He's still undecided, and said he's only certain of one thing: "I'm not happy with the current president."
After querying diners here Tuesday on the quality of the barbecue joint's shredded pork and population of the surrounding small town, Mr. Perry gave his standard pitch: He comes from humble roots, created more than 1 million jobs in Texas and now wants to be the outsider they send to Washington.
"The folks who got us into this mess sure aren't going to be the ones to clean it up," he said.
He repeated the barbs he lobbed at opponents during his previous weekend appearance as well. He slammed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's background working for Bain Capital, condemning the private equity firm's work as "vulture capitalism" that slashed jobs in another South Carolina town.
As for Mr. Santorum, who has attempted to brand himself as the race's authentic conservative, Mr. Perry repeated his criticism of the U.S. senator voting to approve earmark-funded projects while in Washington.
Mr. Perry pledged to veto any earmarks that would reach his desk as president, drawing a round of applause from the audience.
The latest poll shows a potentially competitive race to win South Carolina -- a victory also coveted for its history of coinciding with the eventual GOP nominee.
A survey released by Public Policy Polling on Tuesday showed Mr. Romney leading with 27 percent, followed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at 23 percent and Mr. Santorum with 18 percent. Texas congressman Ron Paul was in fourth at 8 percent, followed by Mr. Perry with 7 percent, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman had 4 percent.
Unfortunately for Mr. Huntsman, he also trailed Comedy Central comedian Stephen Colbert, a South Carolina native who attempted to get his name on the ballot and who drew support from 5 percent of the poll respondents.
Laura Olson: email@example.com or 717-787-4254.