Following South Carolina debate, Republican candidates choose their targets

Republican presidential candidates, from left to right: Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum; former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, take part in the South Carolina Republican presidential candidate debate, Jan. 16, 2012, in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
AP Photo/David Goldman
South Carolina Republican presidential candidate debate
AP Photo/David Goldman

Four days ahead of the South Carolina primary, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have a choice: Attack each other, or focus on taking down the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney.

In a feisty South Carolina debate Monday night, the other candidates largely went after Romney, but the former Massachusetts governor survived mostly unscathed. If Romney can hold onto his lead in the South Carolina polls and pull off a victory, he will have made history as the only Republican candidate to win Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina since the modern primary system was created more than three decades ago.

Santorum and Gingrich arguably have the best chance of stopping Romney's momentum, and they will clearly hammer the former governor in the days leading up to the January 21 primary. Still, with the "anti-Romney" vote splintered, Santorum and Gingrich are also hitting each other.

On "CBS This Morning" Tuesday, Gingrich acknowledged it would be "much harder" on his campaign if Romney wins South Carolina after winning both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries.

"If he gets up to 40 or 45, then, you know, you have to be realistic about it. I don't see any evidence yet of him doing that well," Gingrich said in attempt to raise expectations for the front-runner. While Romney is expected to win, he is not likely to get 40 percent of the vote in conservative South Carolina.

At the same time, Gingrich was lowering his own expectations.

"If he's down at 29 or 30 [percent], then I think we're still in a serious race," he said. He had earlier said he had to win South Carolina to stay in the race.

In addition to siphoning off support from Romney, Gingrich said that in order to win in South Carolina, "I have to convince the people who might like to vote for Santorum or might like to vote for [Texas Gov. Rick] Perry that, in fact, those would be wasted votes, and the only way they can get a conservative nominee is to vote for me on Saturday."

Following Monday's debate, Santorum made the case that he's more a more viable candidate than Gingrich, pointing to the earlier nominating contests.

"Who's more electable - the guy who finished first, or the guy that finished way behind in Iowa," Santorum said, referencing his near-victory in the Iowa caucuses, "Or the guy that finished behind me in New Hampshire, the state that he invested huge amount of resources" in.

Santorum is also hoping to consolidate conservative support in South Carolina after winning the endorsement of a coalition of about 150 social conservatives over the weekend, but the Gingrich campaign was quick to point out that some of those social conservatives still support Gingrich.

Both Gingrich and Santorum, meanwhile, are under attack from a super PAC backing Romney called "Restore our Future," which is spending millions on television ads and a direct mail campaign to hammer Romney's rivals.

The other candidates are taking their turn pummeling them as well. Rep. Ron Paul, who in current South Carolina polls is tied for third place with Santorum, released a new ad today calling Gingrich, Santorum and Romney "three of a kind." The ad calls Gingrich a "serial hypocrite," Santorum a "counterfeit conservative" and Romney a "flip-flopper."

With reporting from CBS News/ National Journal reporter Sarah Boxer