CHARLESTON, S.C. -- On the eve of a Southern showdown, Mitt Romney conceded Friday he's in a tight race with Newt Gingrich for the South Carolina primary in a Republican campaign suddenly turned turbulent.
It's "neck and neck," Romney declared, while a third contender, former Sen. Rick Santorum, swiped at both men in hopes of springing yet another campaign surprise.
Several days after forecasting a Romney victory in his state, Sen. Jim DeMint said the campaign's first Southern primary was now more tight, between the former Massachusetts governor, who has struggled in recent days with questions about his personal wealth and taxes, and Gingrich, the former House speaker who has been surging in polls after a pair of well-received debate performances.
The stakes were high as Republicans continue to seek a challenger to Democratic President Barack Obama. Television advertising by the candidates and their supporters exceeded $10 million here, much of it spent in the past two weeks, and mailboxes were stuffed with campaign fliers.
In a bit of home-state boosterism, DeMint said the primary winner was "likely to be the next president of the United States."
Indeed, the winner of the state's primary has gone on to capture the Republican nomination each year since 1980.
A victory Saturday by Romney would place him in a commanding position heading into the Florida primary on Jan. 31. He and an organization supporting him are already airing television ads in that state, one of the country's costliest in which to campaign.
If Romney stumbles in South Carolina, it could portend a long, drawn-out battle for the nomination stretching well into spring.
That could further expose rifts inside the party between those who want a candidate who can defeat Obama more than anything else, and those whose strong preference is for a solid conservative.
Romney sounded anything but confident as he told reporters that in South Carolina, "I realize that I had a lot of ground to make up and Speaker Gingrich is from a neighboring state, well known, popular . . . and frankly to be in a neck-and-neck race at this last moment is kind of exciting."
On his final lap through the state, Santorum campaigned as the Goldilocks candidate -- just right for the state's conservative voters. "One candidate is too radioactive, a little too hot," he said, alluding to Gingrich. "And we have another candidate who is just too darn cold, who doesn't have bold plans," he added, speaking of Romney.
But he did a whirlwind circuit around the state Friday. "I took a day off of the campaign trail," Paul told an audience of about 200 outside Aiken. "I wanted to make sure I was recorded voting against the national debt limit."