To hear Newt Gingrich tell it, South Carolina is his do-or-die state, the Alamo where he makes his stand as the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. The hour is late, according to the former House speaker: if he doesn’t win Saturday’s primary, the GOP likely ends up with a moderate nominee who loses in November.

There’s far less drama in Rick Santorum’s assessment of the state of Republican race. In his version, the action simply moves to Florida if Romney wins South Carolina, and sooner or later a single candidate will get a clean shot against the former Massachusetts governor.

Regardless of who’s right, those starkly different outlooks provide an insight into the thinking in each camp — and a clear-eyed appraisal of the situation on the ground in the first-in-the-South primary.

Gingrich understands that South Carolina is his best shot at winning after two disappointing early state finishes and Florida — a big, expensive state where’s he’s not well-organized — looming after Saturday’s contest. Santorum can read the tea leaves, too. The polls suggest he’s not going to win here, so there’s no point in speaking in absolutes. Better to diminish expectations and see if he can gain some traction in Florida.

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