The Note: South Carolina Forum Offers A Prelude To Pivotal Period In 2012 Race

By MICHAEL FALCONE (@michaelpfalcone) and GREGORY SIMMONS (@abcgregory)

COLUMBIA, S.C. — On a day that kicks off a more intense period of campaigning in the presidential election cycle, it’s clear that the gloves are coming off.

Nearly all of the Republican candidates will gather today for a forum in South Carolina where Sen. Jim DeMint, a Tea Party icon, will have the chance to question five of them. Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain will take the stage separately, but look for each of them to draw some sharp contrasts with their rivals.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry was a late scratch from the event this morning. A spokesman for the governor said he decided to skip it in order to immediately return to Texas to deal with the raging wildfires there. He took part in another event this morning with Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C. in Conway, S.C.

The Palmetto Freedom Forum, which begins at 3 p.m. ET today at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center, is a prelude to a series of face-to-face debates over the next month that could help bring focus to the race.

It has been a tumultuous month in the 2012 field. With Perry’s entrance, other candidates have been forced to readjust their strategies to deal with his rapid surge in the polls — not only nationally but in key primary states.

Chief among them is Mitt Romney, who was initially expected to skip today’s forum in the Palmetto State but changed his mind. This weekend has been a Tea Party coming out party of sorts for Romney, who spoke at a Tea Party Express rally in New Hampshire last night.

As ABC’s Emily Friedman reports, Romney took yet another veiled swipe at Perry, casting him (without naming him) as a career politician.

“Of the people running for president there aren’t many who have less years in government than me,” Romney said. “I served four years as governor, but I joke, I didn’t inhale.”

And this morning the Romney campaign announced the endorsement of South Carolina State Treasurer Curtis Loftis, who is known to have strong ties to the Tea Party movement.

Romney received DeMint’s endorsement during the 2008 election cycle, but the South Carolina senator said in an interview with ABC’s Christiane Amanpour on “This Week” that he was unlikely to officially back any candidate for several months.

Check for full coverage of today’s presidential forum in South Carolina. ABC’s Jonathan Karl will report live from Columbia for “World News” tonight for “Good Morning America” tomorrow. We will be bringing you up-to-the-minute coverage on the Note:

@ArletteSaenz: Perry still plans on attending the debate Wednesday

DNC COUNTER-PROGRAMMING. The Democratic National Committee released a new web video this morning, titled, “GOP 2012: Chasing the Tea Party.”

“Instead of talking about jobs and how to help the American middle class, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney will continue to out-right each other at Tea Party rallies,” DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse said in a statement. “Their ‘corporations first, middle class last’ policies may score them points with the Tea Party and big business crows, but they’re not offering any solutions that actually help middle class Americans.” WATCH:

SOUTH CAROLINA GOP CHAIR TO 2012 CANDIDATES: ‘GET HERE EARLY, GET HERE OFTEN’ The head of the South Carolina Republican Party doesn’t mince words. His goals for the current presidential election cycle are clear. He wants the candidates to come early and often to his state, he thinks the Tea Party will have as much, if not more, influence in 2012 as they did in 2010, and he’s serious about protecting South Carolina’s coveted “first in the South” primary status. Since 1980, the Republican presidential nominee has won every contested South Carolina primary. Chairman Connelly, who is also an author and motivational speaker, spoke with ABC News on the eve today’s forum with Sen. Jim DeMint. We asked him which of the candidates has the upper hand in South Carolina right now.

Connelly: “I think it’s early — I really do. There’s no question when somebody pops in like Governor Perry did, it creates a stir and there’s a buzz going on. But, you know, Congresswoman Bachmann had that early on when she came out — she created a stir and drew big crowds. And Senator Santorum’s been all over the state. You know when you see all that stuff happening. When they put time and energy into the state I think you’re going to see them get a boost.” More from our Q&A with Chairman Connelly:


@SheilaYM: There’s a table of Palin supporters in Manchester. Much smaller presence than in Iowa. She’s due to speak at

@ ErinMcPike: Tim Scott + Rick Perry just had a literal lovefest on stage. TS: “I like this guy. Sponsored by ‘I love you.’” RP: “Sponsored by your mama.”

@rabcarian: Mitt #Romney & Ann dishin’ pancakes @ Labor Day bash in Manchester NH. Palin arriving later.

@ByronYork: DeMint forum questioner Rep. Steve King: Perry withdrawal ‘a big disappointment to me.’

@AriFleischer: It’s a most wonderful time of the year. Politics is heating up. Yankees r playoff bound. & Dolphins r still in the running.


(all times local)

* Mitt Romney Hosts Labor Day Pancake Breakfast at the Derryfield in Manchester, NH at 8:30 a.m.

* Rick Perry participates in a town hall meeting hosted by Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C. near Myrtle Conway, S.C. at 10 a.m.

* Sarah Palin is speaking at the Tea Party Express’ Labor Day rally in Manchester, N.H. at 12 p.m.

* The American Principles Project and Sen. Jim DeMint hold the Palmetto Freedom Forum at 3 p.m. in Columbia, S.C. Presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, and Herman Cain are expected to attend.

* Jon Huntsman marches in the 65th VFW NH Post 4368 Labor Day Parade in Milford, N.H., at 1 p.m. At 4:15 p.m., he speaks at Salem/Windham Republican Labor Day Picnic in Salem.

* Ron Paul campaigns in South Carolina. He speaks at the American Principles Project Palmetto Freedom Forum at 3:00 p.m. in Columbia, and at 5:30 p.m., he attends a grassroots rally.

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