A few days earlier at a debate in Myrtle Beach, Gingrich also earned the biggest cheers of the night by tangling with Fox News Channel contributor Juan Williams, who asked Gingrich to defend his comments that Obama was "the greatest food stamp president." Williams also asked Gingrich to defend as not racist his suggestion that poor children could earn money by doing janitorial work at their schools.
"He hit that out of the park. It has nothing to do with race," said 62-year-old Ed Cheek, a hospital chaplain who was at a Santorum rally Friday in Lexington but planned to vote for Gingrich.
Santorum, for his part, has been presenting himself as a good alternative to voters bothered by Gingrich's three marriages and affairs and who think Romney is too moderate.
Deborah Braun was at Santorum's rally because she thinks he can beat Obama and has the kind of values she wants in a president. The 62-year-old mother of five and grandmother of 10 said Gingrich "has too much baggage. He's not trustworthy."
All the discussion of tax returns and cheating spouses have drowned out Paul's supporters.
"He is ready to do the hard things that we need to do to turn things around," said David Oberly, a 40-year-old geologist who was eating lunch in a West Columbia restaurant. "I don't care what a person does in their private life. It's issues that matter."
There was one final wrinkle that has turned the South Carolina race into even more of a circus.
Comedian Stephen Colbert attracted thousands to a rally Friday in his hometown of Charleston. Write-ins aren't accepted on the ballot, so Colbert is asking his supporters to vote for Herman Cain, who dropped out of the race last month.
Caroline Simmel attended Colbert's rally. The 18-year-old College of Charleston student voting in her first election said the events of the past few days had left her more confused.
"I don't know that I like any of the candidates out there right now," Simmel said. "I think I would rather have Stephen Colbert running the country."
Associated Press writers Charles Babington in Lexington, Philip Elliott in Fort Mill, Shannon McCaffrey in Walterboro and Bruce Smith in Charleston contributed to this report.
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