STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Yeah, Perry is still speaking but of course he is speaking of his campaign in the past tense, saying I ran for president because I love America. Now, he drops out at a fluid time in South Carolina. There is a poll out this morning that shows Mitt Romney with just a two point lead over Newt Gingrich, 31-29. Now, if you look a little more closely at that same survey, you see that the people who are leaning one way or the other give Romney a bit more of an edge. But it's still relatively close, and some undetermined number of Perry supporters – a few percentage points – are now deciding which way they want to go.
The high stakes may explain why Newt Gingrich predicted the Romney campaign would be, quote, "dirty and dishonest" at the end. Romney's campaign put out a press release yesterday headlined: Newt Gingrich, leadership by chaos. Voters are struggling to make a choice, as NPR's Mara Liasson reports from South Carolina.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Every bit of available ad time on South Carolina television has been purchased, and when you turn on your set, there seems to be nothing on but this...
(SOUNDBITE OF TV ADS)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Obama supported the Wall Street bailouts. So did Romney.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Newt attacks because he has more baggage than the airlines.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Don't be fooled. Rick Santorum, a record of betrayal. Another...
LIASSON: In Mount Pleasant, just outside of Charleston, at Page's Okra Grill, voters like Julie Dunn are just disgusted with the record number of negative ads.
JULIE DUNN: I'm really upset with all of them, that they're being so ugly to each other.
LIASSON: Dunn is a paralegal and she's undecided. She's thinking about voting for Romney, but she's not sure.
DUNN: Well, I don't know. You know, you think well, maybe Romney's got a handle on capitalism and how to make things grow. But then, you know, am I voting for him just because he's the frontrunner? That's kind of where I am.
LIASSON: Her friend Nelson Little doesn't share her ambivalence. Little is strong for Romney.
NELSON LITTLE: I think he can help America get back to the capitalist values that we've had in the past.
LIASSON: You know, he just came out and said that he pays 15 percent tax rate. I don't know if you pay 15 percent tax rate...
LITTLE: Actually, I do, but I don't have the kind of money he has, or the tax shelters. But that's fine.
LIASSON: But Romney hasn't won everyone here. Over at the community table, Bill Bailey is having breakfast with a group of old friends - all working-class conservative Republicans.
BILL BAILEY: I've made up my mind, I think. I'm going with Newt. I'll be honest with you. I don't trust Romney. I'm just having a bad feeling about him.
LIASSON: Bailey has a problem with Romney's background.
BAILEY: We need someone to look out for the small people.
LIASSON: Why don't you think Romney would look out for the small people?
BAILEY: I just don't.
AL MOESSNER: He's not one of them.
BAILEY: He is not one of the small people.
LIASSON: When you heard that he only pays 15 percent on his taxes, what did you think of that?
BAILEY: I didn't like it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BAILEY: Because I have to pay - what little bit I make - I have to pay probably up to 28 to 30 percent.
MOESSNER: He's had 15 debates to convince me he's going to take care of me, and he hasn't done it yet.
LIASSON: That's Al Moessner. He doesn't like what he's heard about Romney's wealth, business practices and tax rate either. But because none of the remaining conservative candidates was able to consolidate the anti-Romney vote, the dynamic of the race never changed. Romney's still the frontrunner here. Polls show Gingrich in second place, Rick Santorum stuck in third. Santorum recently got a boost when a group of evangelical leaders endorsed him. But although there is a large pool of born again Christian voters here, there seems to be a cultural barrier for Santorum.
Here's how Richard Kirkland answered when I asked, what about Santorum?
RICHARD KIRKLAND: I'm still in the South. That ought to answer that. He can handle the Northern states. I don't think he knows how to mess with the Southern states. We are a different world down here.
LIASSON: And in the different world of South Carolina Republican politics, winning appears to be trumping everything else this year. South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint says Republican voters in South Carolina are not looking for a perfect fit.
SENATOR JIM DEMINT: I think the Republican who's going to win this year is the one who I think looks the most electable in the general election, one who can deal most effectively with the economy, and convinces people that they are satisfactory in the social conservative area.
LIASSON: Sounds like he's describing Mitt Romney. DeMint is a potential kingmaker in South Carolina, but he doesn't plan to endorse before the primary. He did endorse Romney in 2008, and many of his supporters and donors are backing Romney this year. Like other conservatives, they think Romney is the likely nominee and their best chance to beat President Obama.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Mara Liasson in South Carolina, where Rick Perry has now formerly said he is dropping out of the presidential race and endorsement Newt Gingrich, as the other candidates prepare for a debate tonight. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.