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Jan. 16 (Bloomberg) -- Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney will face off against rivals struggling to emerge as his principal challenger tonight in the first of two debates before this weekend’s South Carolina primary.
The former Massachusetts governor won the first two primary-season contests, making history with victories in both the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses and the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary election. Earlier today, he gained the backing of rival Jon Huntsman Jr. after the former Utah governor announced his withdrawal from the race.
South Carolina’s Jan. 21 primary may offer the last opportunity for Romney’s remaining challengers to slow his march to the nomination. In remarks to a group of social conservatives before tonight’s debate, Texas Governor Rick Perry, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, and Texas Representative Ron Paul vied to present themselves as the strongest alternative to Romney.
Gingrich urged voters to coalesce around his candidacy, saying that “only a strong, bold conservative” will be able to beat President Barack Obama next fall.
“I’m the only candidate close enough to Governor Romney to stop a moderate from becoming our nominee,” Gingrich told attendees at the Faith and Freedom forum near the Myrtle Beach debate site this afternoon. “We need to unify the conservative movement over the next five days to ensure that a conservative wins the nomination.”
Paul cloaked his libertarian, anti-government spending message in religious terms, linking his opposition to the Federal Reserve to biblical teachings.
“The Bible says we’re supposed to have honest currency and that we’re not supposed to print the money,” he said.
Santorum, buoyed by support over the weekend from national evangelical leaders, touted his socially conservative record including his opposition to expanding abortion rights.
He will begin airing an ad Jan. 18 in the state that compares Romney to Obama on social issues, support for government bailouts, and the national health-care law that was modeled on a Massachusetts proposal Romney signed into law.
“Why would we ever vote for someone who is just like Obama,” the narrator in the ad asks, “when we can unite around Rick Santorum and beat Obama?”
The spot is the latest addition to a flood of commercials and mail targeting South Carolina voters. More than $3 million had been spent on political ads in the state as of Jan. 13, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, a company that tracks advertising. The amount spent is probably even higher, given that the total doesn’t reflect the massive ad buys made by campaigns over last weekend.
The contest is playing out in an economic environment worse than the national average. The state’s unemployment rate was 9.9 percent in November, the most recent month available, compared with December’s national rate of 8.5 percent. That’s high enough to put South Carolina in the top 10 states for the most unemployment in November.
Social issues have also emerged as a major topic in the state. In 2008, 60 percent of South Carolina Republican primary voters said in exit polls that they consider themselves “born again” or evangelical Christians, who often oppose abortion rights and gay marriage.
Perry, a devout Christian whose campaign is struggling after poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, has worked to save his campaign by appealing to those voters. Though the Texas governor was initially the top choice of conservative leaders who gathered in Texas on Jan. 14, his candidacy has slipped to sixth place in most public opinion polls.
Tonight’s debate, sponsored by the Fox News Channel and Wall Street Journal, is the 16th of the presidential contest. The candidates are scheduled to meet on Jan. 19 for another debate in Charleston sponsored by CNN and the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.
--Editors: Robin Meszoly, John Brinsley
To contact the reporters on this story: Lisa Lerer in Myrtle Beach, S.C. at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at email@example.com
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