THE NOTE: Southern Discomfort

So much for Southern charm.

A typically harsh and dirty campaign in South Carolina is shaping up as a critical test for the Republican presidential field, with Saturday's primary testing campaign mettle -- as well as candidates' stomach for attacks -- and likely to finally bring some order to the Republican field.

Turns out there were as many tickets out of Iowa as there were passengers on the train. New Hampshire and Michigan then showed us what we knew already: That we don't know what Republicans want, since they don't know themselves.

Saturday's South Carolina primary will shake things up. It has turned former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., and former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., into harsh enemies, since only one can emerge as son of the South.


It gives Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the chance to overcome his demons from 2000 -- and he's intent on reacting (and, perhaps, overreacting) to attacks this time. Former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., is so worried about the Palmetto State that he left town two days early -- the better to manage the true indicator against which all candidates are judged: expectations.

It's why -- while Bob Johnson and Chris Matthews were apologizing, Barack Obama was celebrating, John Edwards was reintroducing, and reporters were trying to figure out what it is that Ron Kaufman is doing for Romney's campaign -- South Carolina is meaner than ever.

The latest poll spells out the stakes: It's McCain 27, Huckabee 25, Romney 15, Thompson 13 -- a finish that would surely doom Thompson if it holds. "Almost 1 in 10 likely voters said they were still undecided, and one-third of those who did express support for candidates said they might change their minds in the final hours," McClatchy's Stephen Thomma writes. "The biggest bloc of undecided voters are evangelical Christians."

But who can guess the outcome, what with fake Christmas cards, scurrilous fliers, shady phone calls, and whispering campaigns serving up hardball politics with them grits. "The Palmetto State is awash in stealth e-mail attacks, fake polling calls and other dirty tricks reminiscent of the scurrilous rumors that scuttled John McCain's candidacy in 2000," Bloomberg's Heidi Przybyla and Edwin Chen write.

"With the Republican race more open than ever, South Carolina is a magnet for third-party groups uninhibited by campaign-finance limits and eager to sling mud."

"The political gutter doesn't get much muddier or deeper than it does in the mannerly Palmetto State, and the sludge-slinging is escalating just before the nation's first-in-the-South GOP presidential primary on Saturday," Lisa Anderson writes in the Chicago Tribune.

Every campaign likes to cry foul when attacked -- often through the media -- but blizzards limit visibility. "The effect of all these 'dirty tricks' is difficult to ascertain because there are so many candidates," ABC's Jake Tapper writes. Said Romney adviser Warren Tompkins: "It's been a tightrope for all of us to walk."

And walking the South Carolina way often involves a fair bit of pandering. Time's Michael Scherer notices a new McCain: "Up in New Hampshire, John McCain ran hard on two issues, strong national security and limited government spending," he writes.

"Down here, he mentions a few more: His 24 year opposition to abortion, the scourge of Internet child pornography, and his determination to nominate judges who 'strictly interpret the constitution and do not legislate from the bench.' "

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