CHARLESTON, S.C. - The second to last full day before voters go to the polls in South Carolina has begun with an altered reality on the campaign trail. Rick Perry is dropping out of the GOP race and Rick Santorum looks like he actually won Iowa - not Mitt Romney.
Perry's exit from the race, which he intends to announce during an 11 a.m. ET press conference at a hotel in North Charleston, S.C., gives his rivals a golden opportunity - particularly Newt Gingrich, who has been enjoying something of a mini-surge in the Palmetto State in recent days and who Perry plans to endorse.
As ABC's Jake Tapper notes, "This is the beginning of the conservative push to coalesce around one non-Romney alternative. South Carolina Republicans say the beginning of the end for Perry came earlier this week when S.C. State Sen. Larry Grooms rescinded his Perry endorsement and hopped to Santorum. 'It is apparent that Governor Perry cannot win and has no viable strategy in moving forward,' Grooms said."
Perry's exit has the potential to shake up the race, but the fact remains, South Carolina seems to want to have it both ways: On the one side is South Carolina's role as "King maker." Republicans here take pride in the fact that since 1980 every candidate who has won the primary here has gone on to win the nomination. Their mantra is, "We pick presidents."
Iowa and New Hampshire are famous for allowing upstart, underfunded or unconventional candidates to win the day. South Carolina is the place where the conventional and the traditional carry the day.
And it's that tradition that should benefit Romney. He's ahead in the polls. He's running a textbook campaign and isn't making any mistakes. He looks like a nominee.
On the other side, however, is South Carolina's rebel past. This is a state that still talks about the battle at Fort Sumter as if it happened a few years ago. It's a place that chafes under the bridle of the "establishment." This is the cradle of the Tea Party movement, birthing such leaders as Sen. Jim DeMint, Rep. Tim Scott and Gov. Nikki Haley.
And right now, the establishment - the media, the pundits, the polls - is telling them that Romney is going to be the nominee. And, some of them don't like it.
At an event for Newt Gingrich yesterday at a BBQ restaurant near Aiken, S.C. one woman told ABC News: "I feel like they are just trying to shove Mitt Romney down my throat."
It was a sentiment that Gingrich, himself, echoed at the town hall meeting when he struck a populist tone.
"I fully expect the Romney campaign to be unendingly dirty and dishonest for the next four days because they are desperate, they thought they could buy this. They discovered that they can't buy this," he said. "People power will be money power. And I need your help."
And it's also a theme that challenger Rick Santorum is picking up on in a new television ad his campaign unveiled yesterday that is downright Orwellian.
"The establishment is once again telling us to fall in line - and vote for their backroom hand-picked moderate candidate," the ad's narrator says. "They're telling us to simply ignore the fact that Romney supported the Wall Street bailout. Ignore that Romneycare includes taxpayer funding of abortions. We should simply forget that Mitt Romney once bragged he's even more liberal on social issues then Ted Kennedy."
So, which South Carolina will show up on Saturday when voters here head to the polls? Right now, it's clear that the "rebel" side has the momentum. But, unless those rebels coalesce behind one candidate, the establishment candidate - Romney - will carry the day.
IOWA SHOCKER: SANTORUM TOPS ROMNEY. "It's a tie for the ages," the Des Moines Register reported early this morning. "There are too many holes in the certified totals from the Iowa caucuses to know for certain who won, but Rick Santorum wound up with a 34-vote advantage. Results from eight precincts are missing - any of which could hold an advantage for Mitt Romney - and will never be recovered and certified, Republican Party of Iowa officials told The Des Moines Register on Wednesday. GOP officials discovered inaccuracies in 131 precincts, although not all the changes affected the two leaders. Changes in one precinct alone shifted the vote by 50 - a margin greater than the certified tally. The certified numbers: 29,839 for Santorum and 29,805 for Romney. The turnout: 121,503." http://dmreg.co/xLeMMD
ROMNEY FRAMING: "The results from Iowa caucus night revealed a virtual tie. I would like to thank the Iowa Republican Party for their careful attention to the caucus process, and we once again recognize Rick Santorum for his strong performance in the state," Mitt Romney said in a statement. "The Iowa caucuses, with record turnout, were a great start to defeating President Obama in Iowa and elsewhere in the general election."
SANTORUM PUSH-BACK: Romney's statement did not sit well with longtime Santorum strategist and adviser, John Brabender, ABC's Shushannah Walshe. "Well, someone should tell that to Mitt Romney. He sounds like a kid who didn't get what he wanted for his birthday so he smashed the cake," Brabender answered when ABC News asked him for his reaction to the news that they may have won the first caucus state after all. "It's my understanding we got an e mail that says Rick Santorum has been certified as the winner," Brabender said. "In New Hampshire, Sen. Santorum called Mitt Romney and congratulated him. Romney should have the dignity, honor, and character to call and congratulate us on our win in Iowa."
POLLS SHOW NEWT CLOSING THE GAP. The Note: Could Rick Perry's Exit Pave The Way For An Anti-Mitt? According to the results of a new CNN/Time Magazine/ORC poll released on Wednesday afternoon, Romney is winning the support of 33 percent of likely South Carolina GOP voters, Gingrich gets 23 percent, Rick Santorum has 16 percent, Ron Paul stands at 16 percent and Rick Perry is trailing behind the rest of the pack with 6 percent.
But it's clear that Gingrich has some momentum at his back. In a poll taken earlier this month, Romney was leading Gingrich by nearly 20 percentage points in South Carolina. Two weeks later, Gingrich has cut the former Massachusetts governor's lead in half. And the trend has not gone unnoticed in the Romney campaign, which sees the margin with the former House Speaker narrowing.
The real question is: How firm is Romney's 33 percent in South Carolina? If it is his floor, then there's still a good opportunity for him to eke out a win in Saturday's primary. Romney's two biggest assets in the state remain Santorum and Paul who are pulling in a combined 35 percent support here. As long as that anti-Romney vote remains divided, it allows him the chance to win with a small plurality.
Fifty-seven percent of South Carolina likely GOP voters in the poll said they would "definitely support" their current candidate of choice, 35 percent said they might change their mind and 8 percent had no opinion. The poll was taken from Jan. 13 through Jan. 17 - several days before and one day after this Monday's presidential debate in Myrtle Beach.
Happy Birthday to ABC's Jonathan Karl who reported for "Good Morning America" this morning about how Gingrich is tightening the race in South Carolina. WATCH: http://abcn.ws/zbGt3x
DEBATE DAY PREVIEW: The remaining Republican candidates will gather for their final debate before Saturday's primary tonight. CNN and the Southern Republican Leadership Conference will host the debate that takes place at the North Charleston Coliseum. The two-hour debate will begin at 8 p.m. ET and will be moderated by CNN's John King. In addition to questions posed to the candidates by King and southern Republicans in the audience, CNN will solicit questions and comments submitted on CNN.com, Facebook and by using the #CNNDebate hashtag on Twitter.
DEMOCRATIC COUNTER-PROGRAMMING. Democratic National Committee Communications Director Brad Woodhouse penned a memo ahead of tonight's debate, suggesting some questions for Romney. "Voters still have a number of unanswered questions about Mitt Romney and his campaign," Woodhouse wrote. "That's because throughout the course of Romney's presidential bid, he has continued to run a campaign based on secrecy and a fundamental lack of transparency with the American people, who deserve to know the truth about Mitt Romney before they head to the polls. From refusing to release his tax returns despite overwhelming precedent for presidential candidates doing so, to repeatedly shifting his position on Super PACs, Mitt Romney has been dodging the issues left and right. Will he finally come clean tonight?"
@davidfrum : Romney's squeaker non-win in Iowa should not cause us to forget that through 2011 most observers expected him to finish a dismal 3d or worse
@hollybdc : On Romney conf call, Sununu calls for Gingrich to release full report of 90s ethics investigation to prevent "Oct surprise" if he's the nom
-Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Rick Perry will face-off in the final debate Thursday night before the South Carolina Primary. The CNN/Southern Republican Leadership Conference Debate will take place in Charleston, South Carolina.
-Mitt Romney will visit his South Carolina Campaign Headquarters Thursday morning in Charleston.
-Rick Santorum is on the trail in Mount Pleasant where he'll hold a Values Voter Rally with Tony Perkins. Santorum then heads to Charleston to address the Southern Republican Leadership Conference at the College Of Charleston Basketball Arena.
-Newt Gingrich campaigns in Bluffton, Beaufort, and Walterboro South Carolina before the debate. In Beaufort, Gingrich will speak at the Henry Chambers Waterfront where he'll be joined by Colonel Michael Steele.
-Ron Paul has a morning event in Charleston, South Carolina at the College of Charleston.
-Although no longer in the race, Herman Cain will be address the Southern Republican Leadership Conference on Thursday afternoon announcing his endorsement for the 2012 Presidential Election.
-ABC's Josh Haskell (@HaskellBuzz)
DISPATCHES FROM THE TRAIL. Check out our new political website OTUSNews.com ( www.Otusnews.com) The Note ( http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/the-note/) and ABC News/Politics ( http://abcnews.go.com/politics) and follow our reporters in the field on Twitter:
Newt Gingrich: ABC's Elicia Dover ( @EliciaDover)
Jon Huntsman: ABC's Susan Archer ( @TheOnlyArcher)
Ron Paul: ABC's Jason Volack ( @Jason_Volack)
Rick Perry: ABC's Arlette Saenz ( @ArletteSaenz)
Mitt Romney: ABC's Emily Friedman ( @EmilyABC)
Check out The Note's Futures Calendar: http://abcn.ws/ZI9gV
* Get The Note delivered to your inbox every day.
* For breaking political news and analysis check out The Note blog: http://blogs.abcnews.com/thenote/ and ABCNews.com/Politics: http://abcnews.com/politics