Rick Perry speaks with potential voters during a caucus training session… (Jonathan Gibby / Getty Images )
Reporting from Manchester, N.H. — While most of their rivals dash to New Hampshire, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann plan to skip ahead to South Carolina on Wednesday to open the battle for evangelical support in a state that is crucial to both candidates' survival in the Republican presidential race.
Neither is well placed to win South Carolina's Jan. 21 primary.
But if both stay in the race after what polls suggest could be a bottom-tier finish in tonight's Iowa caucuses, South Carolina will stand as each candidate's last chance to demonstrate viability.
The shift straight to South Carolina reflects a recognition by both candidates of dim prospects in New Hampshire's Jan. 10 primary, a contest less tilted to the party's conservative wing.
"Gov. Perry is a natural fit for South Carolina -- a full-throated conservative with evangelical ties," said Katon Dawson, a senior Perry advisor in South Carolina, making the same case for the Texas governor that supporters of Bachmann make for the Minnesota congresswoman.
In South Carolina polls, Newt Gingrich has led since late November, but his popularity recently dropped. Attack ads that Perry and supporters of Mitt Romney have started running in South Carolina could further weaken Gingrich's standing. But, just as in Iowa, advisors to the former House speaker do not expect him to strike back in kind.
"He still is not in favor of going negative," said Leslie Gaines, deputy director of Gingrich's South Carolina campaign.
Rivals' subtle reminders of Gingrich's three marriages and admitted adultery during his second –- Romney and Rick Santorum have been showcasing their stable family lives -- could also prove troublesome to South Carolina's large bloc of evangelicals. But Gaines suggested that evangelicals would overlook Gingrich's personal shortcomings.
"Redemption is a big deal in Christianity," she said.
Either way, South Carolina is known for low-road campaign tactics, and candidates are bracing for the worst.
"This is a mean state," Dawson said. "It's going to get personal."
Perry plans to open a three-day bus tour at a gun store in Aiken, with stops also set for Duke's Bar-B-Q in Orangeburg, Fat Jack's Grillin' and Chillin' in Walterboro, and Squat & Gobble in Bluffton.
Bachmann's less ambitious schedule includes a house party in Greenville and a Fuddruckers stop in Spartanburg.
Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, plans to interrupt his week of New Hampshire campaigning with a trip Thursday to Charleston and Myrtle Beach, havens of retirees with relatively moderate political views.
The big unknown -- at least until tonight's results are in -- is whether Santorum will finish strong enough in Iowa to emerge as South Carolina's conservative alternative to Romney, who finished fourth in the state's 2008 primary. Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, has spent more time campaigning in South Carolina than any of his opponents.
"It's still wide open," said Dave Woodard, director of Clemson University's Palmetto Poll. "Anything could still happen."