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GOP rivals hope to catch a wave in Myrtle Beach debate

Tonight's Republican presidential debate in Myrtle Beach is likely to be the most important one yet for both South Carolina and the national Republican Party.

With frontrunner Mitt Romney leading in new S.C. polls and wins in both Iowa and New Hampshire under his belt, South Carolina's primary is likely the last chance the others candidates have to halt his march to the GOP nomination.

"If Romney wins South Carolina, I think the game's over," said U.S. Rep. Tim Scott, a Charleston Republican, on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday. "This is the last stand for many candidates."

Tonight's debate is a key way S.C. Republicans will gather information to choose a candidate.

Nearly 7 million viewers nationwide watched Fox News' last debate, according to Nielsen Media Research.

"People are finally tuning in," said Chad Connelly, chairman of the S.C. Republican Party that is a co-sponsor of the debate along with Fox News and The Wall Street Journal.

"There is so much media attention now, and we're getting over that hump of people saying, 'Yeah, ho hum.'"

Candidates who do not perform well in this and a subsequent CNN debate Thursday could see their presidential hopes dashed.

That likely includes Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who considered dropping out of the race after a disappointing finish in Iowa but ultimately decided to push on to South Carolina, where his Southern roots and jobs-creation record was anticipated to sway voters.

Perry led S.C. polls after announcing his candidacy in Charleston but plunged to single-digit ratings after dismal debate performances. That includes a November debate in Michigan during which Perry forgot the name of the Department of Energy.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum needs the state's evangelical and social conservatives to prove his virtual tie with Romney in Iowa was no fluke.

Santorum needs a Palmetto State bounce to catapult him into Florida for the next primary, on Jan. 31.

Former Speaker of the U.S. House Newt Gingrich, a Georgia native, has campaigned heavily in the state since last summer and has called the coming days leading up to the primary "one of the most important weeks in the history of the GOP."

Romney's debate performances have been focused and polished and, S.C. politicos say, a continuation of that performance level will reassure voters he is the one to take the fight to President Barack Obama in November.

Bret Baier, anchor of "Special Report with Bret Baier" on Fox News, said he is taking his job of moderating tonight's debate seriously.

"These debates have been very important in this race and have really moved the needle in terms of who is leading," said Baier, who got his TV start in 1991 at a Beaufort TV station and whose father lives in Hilton Head.

While debate questions will run the gamut, Baier said many will be pegged for S.C. viewers.

"They'll be a lot of focus on the economy and some specific focus on South Carolina and how your state is dealing with tough times," Baier said, referring to the state's 9.9 percent unemployment rate.

Three things to watch for

Mitt Romney - The frontrunner and former Massachusetts governor has given solid debate performances throughout the campaign season. Can he do it again tonight? Or does he flub and create an opening for another candidate? Watch for Romney's response to tough questions about his time at the private equity firm, Bain Capital, and the loss of S.C. jobs.

Newt Gingrich - The former Speaker of the House is in second place in S.C. polls, in part because of his skill in previous debates. Can Gingrich win over more supporters tonight to put him in first place? Will he take more jabs at Romney over Bain?

Rick Santorum - Will the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, who many South Carolinians are taking a serious look at after his success in Iowa, steal the show?

Others - Can any of the other candidates, including U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who performed well in both Iowa and New Hampshire, get much air time? Or will this be a three-man debate?