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.

nullPlay
null

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.' "

"Once the outsider, McCain is now the insider in South Carolina," Politico's David Paul Kuhn writes. "After months of campaigning as the insurgent -- a role he relishes and one that aided his comeback in New Hampshire -- McCain now finds himself as the closest thing to the state's establishment candidate."

Maybe it's the air down there that's got Huckabee suddenly -- and without prompting -- talking about the Confederate flag, as sizzling a hot button as ever, even though said flag no longer flies over the state capitol. "If somebody came to Arkansas and told us what to do with our flag we'd tell them where to put the pole," Huckabee said, ABC's Kevin Chupka reports.

(That's is one way to avoid the radio ads that attack McCain and Romney on the flag issue, as Stephen Dinan reports in the Washington Times.)

The big complicating factor: The Christian right is torn. "Evangelicals have an opportunity Saturday to remind party leaders about their record as kingmakers," Louise Roug writes in the Los Angeles Times.

"But conservative leaders have turned against each other in a split that may further undermine the political power of evangelicals who, with the decline of the once-formidable Christian Coalition of America and other groups, have lost influence within the GOP."

No candidate faces bigger stakes than Thompson, who's hoping to make up for lost campaign ground. "Other candidates have much to gain or lose here, but none more than the man whose candidacy has been one of the campaign's biggest puzzles," Dan Balz and Perry Bacon Jr. write in The Washington Post.

"Thompson advisers see the three biggest strands of the Republican coalition -- economic, social and national security conservatives -- divided among three candidates: Romney, Huckabee and McCain. Thompson, they argue, still has the capacity to unite all three, but only by showing that in South Carolina."

One big obstacle, per Beliefnet.com's Dan Gilgoff: "As Thompson continues to bank on strong support from religious conservatives for a top three finish here, he has nonetheless remained reticent about his own faith and is visibly less excited speaking about socially conservative causes like stopping abortion and gay marriage than about terrorism, government spending, or illegal immigration. That reticence and enthusiasm gap could wind up costing him dearly in the Palmetto State."

Romney chose to flee town, with a Las Vegas gamble. "It speaks to a shift in strategy as Mr. Romney seeks a way to build on his victory and to a recognition that he probably could not win here" in South Carolina, Adam Nagourney and Michael Luo report in The New York Times.

"It may have also served to lower expectations for him here, even as he continued to advertise in the final hours and readied a get-out-the-vote effort."

And here's another reason to like what Nevada has to offer: "His Mormonism is arguably an asset in Nevada, a state Mormons founded, which has a significant population of Mormons and whose voters, of whatever faith, have always seemed comfortable electing Mormons."

Democrats have another few days before they turn their full attention to South Carolina, and their big Saturday contest comes in Nevada. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., is up 41-32 over Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., in the latest poll.

Thursday brought a big victory to Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. (and disappointment to Camp Clinton). "U.S. District Judge James Mahan said political parties have the freedom to set up their own guidelines for caucuses if they do not discriminate against voters based on race, gender or religion," Adrienne Packer writes in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

The Las Vegas Sun's J. Patrick Coolican catalogues the Democrats' Nevada tactics -- and sees them getting smart with hard-hitting ads, savvy use of the blogosphere, and tough talk all around.

"After wearing helmets while riding in tanks and being for things before being against them, the party of the late response and the lame attack ad has learned how to do politics this election," Coolican writes.

The failed lawsuit is inspiration for one of the ads, a Spanish-language number being run by Unite Here, which represents the Obama-backing culinary workers. "Hillary Clinton does not respect our people. Hillary Clinton's supporters went to court to stop working people from being able to vote this Saturday -- that is an embarrassment," the ad says, per ABC's Kate Snow and Eloise Harper.

Obama's rivals want to embarrass him over the ads. Per the Washington Times' Christina Bellantoni, Obama was harshly critical of 527 groups supporting Edwards in Iowa, but now -- not so much.

Said Clinton spokesman Phil Singer: "In Nevada, he's looking the other way as they falsely attack his opponents."

Edwards is weighing in as well: "I hope Senator Obama will first denounce the ad and second call for it to be stopped and stopped immediately," he said, Anjeanette Damon reports for the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Obama is starting to hit back -- and hard. Thursday night in Las Vegas, "Obama brought up, in almost comic [style], Clinton's criticisms over his recent debate answers, the bankruptcy bill, Yucca Mountain, Social Security, and lobbyists," ABC's Sunlen Miller reports. "He presented himself, by contrast as the one who is the straight shooter, and Clinton as a candidate who will say anything to get elected."

Obama has a different memory of that Tuesday night debate with all those pleasantries, Jeff Zeleny reports in The New York Times. Referring to a bankruptcy bill, he said, "She was asked about it by Tim Russert and she said, 'Oh I voted for it but I'm glad to see that it didn't pass.' . . . What does that mean? No seriously what does that mean? . . . People don't say what they mean. You know that it's true."

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., is helping Obama hit back, too. Kerry "defended Obama's record on the nuclear repository project at Yucca Mountain, which Obama opposes," the Las Vegas Sun's Coolican reports. "Clinton's attacks on Obama, saying he's aligned with supporters who favor the dump, are disingenuous, Kerry said."

Said Kerry: "It's the kind of politics I expect from the other party, not ours."

If the Nevada caucuses turn on local issues, Clinton would appear to have the edge -- at least if being on the offensive has anything to do with it. There's Yucca Mountain, and there's also gambling, where the Clinton campaign is throwing old Obama quotes back at him, Peter Wallsten and Peter Nicholas write in the Los Angeles Times.

"Barack Obama has warned about the dangers of gambling -- that it carries a 'moral and social cost' that could "devastate" poor communities," Wallsten and Nicholas write. Clinton, meanwhile, has "embraced the gambling industry and its executives, and her campaign has used Obama's past statements in an effort to turn casino workers and other Nevada voters against him."

The Reno Gazette-Journal endorses Obama, writing that he "embodies the political and ideological perspectives that the party projects." The paper's GOP endorsement goes to Romney, "the best candidate -- and the one who would give the party its strongest chance in the fall."

The Las Vegas Sun is backing Clinton, citing experience: "The Democratic nominee will need to be the kind of individual who has been through grueling campaigns and has the mettle not only to stand up to the Republican nominee's hardball tactics but also to deliver a message of positive change that will take this country forward again," the editorial reads.

"Clinton has a long and substantial record of leadership fighting on behalf of working Americans and children, and it is this experience and her passion for creating a better country that would serve this nation so well."

Then there's Bill -- again in the news for all the wrong reasons. "Some Clinton advisers say the campaign is trying to rein him in somewhat, so that his outbursts become less of a factor to reporters, but his flashes of anger only seem to be growing," Patrick Healy writes in The New York Times.

"Aides and advisers to both Clintons say he tends to explode in anger more often and more fiercely than his wife, whose temper is usually described as that of a slow-burn and clipped-tone variety."

The Washington Post's Peter Baker recalls that Monday brings a not-so-special 10th anniversary of a certain scandal that rocked a presidency. "As Clinton travels the country campaigning for his wife with characteristic intensity, he is fighting not only to promote Hillary Rodham Clinton's candidacy but also to set the record straight on the two terms he spent in the White House," Baker writes.

"And if some cast the Democratic nomination battle as a test of whether the party wants to turn the page on the Clinton years, then he is determined to win the referendum."

Try to find the understatement: "Advisers to the senator from New York are acutely aware of Monday's anniversary, coming at the height of the primary season, and hope it will pass with little notice," Baker writes.

Obama's pastor, for one, isn't afraid to let the M-word escape his lips. Per the New York Post's Maggie Haberman (in remarks Obama quickly distanced himself from): "The pastor whom Barack Obama calls his spiritual guide and mentor took a stunning shot at Bill Clinton this week, saying the ex-president did the same thing to black voters that 'he did to Monica Lewinsky.' "

It's a final full day of campaigning in South Carolina and Nevada on Friday. Check out all of the candidate's schedules in The Note's "Sneak Peek."

Also in the news:

Economy, economy, economy . . . Look for Washington wrangling to come back to the trail, with Congress and the White House working on a stimulus package.

When the Democrats do get down to South Carolina, they'll find a race where Obama has an early edge, up 40-31-13 over Clinton and Edwards in the new Mason-Dixon poll.

The contest appears likely to turn on the preferences of black voters, Shaila Dewan writes in The New York Times. "Across the South, a fierce competition is afoot for black voters, who are expected to constitute 20 percent to 50 percent of voters in the South Carolina Democratic primary on Jan. 26 and in the four Southern states with primaries on Feb. 5: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Tennessee. In many counties, registration has spiked since Mr. Obama won the Iowa caucuses, and election officials say interest is at its highest point in several election cycles."

Among the many factors that could shift the terrain: the economy, Josh Gerstein writes in the New York Sun. "Senator Obama is racking up a series of tactical victories in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, but supporters of Senator Clinton see the ground shifting in their candidate's favor as Americans grow increasingly focused on the sputtering economy," Gerstein writes.

With both Clinton and Obama campaigning in California in recent days, Clinton is breaking the Feb. 5 ice, with a new TV ad up in the Golden State.

Clinton supporter Bob Johnson has apologized to Obama, a couple of days after saying it would be "irresponsible and incorrect" for anyone to think he meant to say what everyone thought he said. Writes The New York Times' Kate Phillips: "It would be completely accurate to begin this way: Yet another day, yet another apology from a surrogate of the Clinton camp. But I'm fairly certain we did that a few weeks ago."

Chris Matthews has apologized for remarks he made about Clinton, "under pressure from feminist groups and his own bosses at MSNBC," Howard Kurtz reports in The Washington Post. "On last night's program, Matthews defended the substance of his remarks that Clinton's political career in New York was launched because of public sympathy stemming from her husband's much-investigated affair with Monica Lewinsky. But, he said, 'was it fair to imply that Hillary's whole career depended on being a victim of an unfaithful husband? No. And that's what it sounded like I was saying.' "

Also from the department of journalist vs. candidate . . . the AP's Glen Johnson got into a tiff on Thursday with Romney, after Romney said "I don't have lobbyists running my campaign." Said Johnson: "That is not true. Ron Kaufman's a lobbyist. How can you say that you don't have lobbyists?"

Per ABC's Matt Stuart: "Underlying the exchange is tension between Romney and some of the reporters covering his campaign, who have accused him of a 'candor gap.' "

Johnson gets the last (couple hundred) words: "One of them, Ron Kaufman, chairman of Washington-based Dutko Worldwide, regularly sits across the aisle from Romney on his campaign plane, participates in debate strategy sessions and just last week accompanied Romney to a lunch in Myrtle Beach with Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C."

"Another adviser, former Rep. Vin Weber, R-Minn., is chairman of Romney's policy committee. He also is chief executive officer of Clark & Weinstock, and his corporate biography says he 'provides strategic advice to institutions with matters before the legislative and executive branches of the federal government.' A third adviser, former Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri, who was at Romney's victory party in Michigan on Tuesday, is co-chairman of Fleishman-Hillard Government Relations and also is a registered lobbyist, according to federal records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics." (And that's not the whole list.)

Now HE is not a lobbyist -- that would be a major demotion. And his support means more: Rush Limbaugh has been consistently boosting Romney's candidacy from behind his "golden EIB microphone," Michael Levenson reports in The Boston Globe. Rush has "praised Romney effusively, repeated Romney's policy talking points, defended him against attacks from fellow conservatives, and after Romney's win in Michigan this week, declared him the front-runner. Just as tellingly, Limbaugh has been crusading against Huckabee and McCain, whom he does not consider real conservatives or suitable heirs to the Reagan legacy."

Riding high after his win in Michigan -- and poised to pick up Nevada delegates while his rivals blast each other in South Carolina -- find out why Romney is ABC's Buzz Maker of the Week.

RNC Chairman Mike Duncan on Friday delivers a general election preview. On Clinton, he plans to say, "She says she's running on her experience and her record. But she doesn't want to give us access to the documents that would allow us to judge that experience and that record on our own." On Obama: "Are we really ready to elect as President of the United States of America a man who, a little more than three years ago, was an Illinois State Senator of no great distinction, with a habit of voting 'present' on controversial issues?"

Not to be outdone, the DNC fires back with a memo of its own on Friday: "The only way Romney can call himself a change agent is if we could count the number of times he's changed positions." And: "The 'maverick' John McCain from 2000 is driving the Straight Talk Express in circles as he's gone from standing up to Bush to trying to be Bush on just about every issue -- even trying to outdo him by saying our troops could be in Iraq for 100 years."

Edwards, D-N.C., doesn't want to be forgotten -- and he doesn't want to only be remembered for fun videos, either.

He's taking on Obama over his comparison to Ronald Reagan: "My view is I would never use Ronald Reagan as an example of change," he said, per ABC's Raelyn Johnson. "I can promise you this: This president will never use Ronald Reagan as an example for change."

"John Edwards has been called the sleeper candidate, the stealth candidate -- he may even be the forgotten candidate," Marshall Allen writes in the Las Vegas Sun. "Not that Edwards hasn't been working the state. He has dozens of paid staff and a solid corps of dedicated precinct captains. His people said he's been here 17 times -- more than any other candidate -- and talked up the early endorsements from the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America and the United Steelworkers Union, which provided time to build the framework for a strong caucus finish."

Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who's quoting Romney in a new TV ad, may wind up happy with his decision to camp out in Florida, if The Washington Post's Dan Balz is right.

"In what is turning out to be the year that proves the exception to the rule, South Carolina may be surrendering its position as the decisive date on the GOP calendar," Balz writes. "Strategists in many of the Republican campaigns long believed that Florida's Jan. 29 primary would be the battle that truly established the pecking order in the nomination battle. They are even more convinced of that now, after three different winners in Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan."

The kicker:

"Don't be argumentative with the candidate." -- Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom, to the AP's Glen Johnson.

"A guy came up to me and said, 'Did anyone ever tell you you look a lot like John McCain? Doesn't it just make you mad as heck?' " -- John McCain, in one of his favorite jokes, per ABC's Ron Claiborne.

"Some guy pointed at me and said, 'Anybody ever tell you you look like that Kerry guy?' I said, 'Yeah, they tell me that all the time.' And he said, 'Kinda makes you mad, don't it?' " -- John Kerry, in one of HIS favorite jokes, per the Los Angeles Times' Andrew Malcolm.

The Note will be publishing special editions Saturday and Sunday, previewing and recapping this big weekend in politics. Check back at ABCNews.com/politics for all the latest.

Bookmark The Note at http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/TheNote/story?id=3105288&page=1