Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul didn't seem to mind Friday that he has campaigned less aggressively in South Carolina than he did in other early voting states.
But it was far from clear during a whirlwind circuit around the state the day before the crucial Southern primary whether the libertarian-leaning Texas congressman would send a message here as his outsider candidacy did in Iowa and New Hampshire.
"I took a day off of the campaign trail," Paul told an audience of about 200 in a packed banquet hall outside Aiken. "I wanted to make sure I was recorded voting against the national debt limit."
The remark, explaining Paul's temporary departure in the campaign Wednesday to vote in Congress, ignited cheers from the audience in southwestern South Carolina.
Paul drew a crowd of several hundred in Greenville despite heavy rain and frigid temperatures.
"When we were flying and the weather was getting bad, I thought, is anyone going to show up?" Paul said, clearly buoyed by the turnout. The audience cheered.
It was a far different scene early Friday, before Paul began a six-city tour of South Carolina in a small plane. He drew fewer than 100 people to a cavernous airplane hangar in North Charleston, although the audience did include some die-hard supporters.
"When you hear the word principle, you think of Ron Paul. He's the embodiment of that," said Derek Smith, a 26-year-old engineer for the Navy in Charleston. "If he were to run as a third-party candidate, I would vote for him unconditionally."
Paul finished in a strong third place in the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, and claimed a distant second to Mitt Romney in New Hampshire. Paul's aides have tried to lower expectations in South Carolina, where he has less invested and where his opposition to military intervention sows doubts among the state's many military hawks.
"There's no authority for our president to go to war without a declaration of war, and I think that it's crucial to avoid these wars that aren't doing that much for us," he told the North Charleston audience.
Paul advisers said they originally expected his share of the vote to reach only the single digits in South Carolina, but they said were sensing enough momentum to make them guardedly optimistic the Texas congressman would finish ahead of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. Polls showed a tight contest for first place between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.
The Paul campaign, which has spent about $1.5 million on television advertising in South Carolina, has already signaled it would all but skip Florida, citing the prohibitive cost of campaigning there and the likelihood that the state would not field a full slate of delegates. Florida defied Republican Party rules by moving its primary to Jan. 31, and as punishment the party has threated to strip the state of some of its delegates.
Instead, the campaign is looking ahead to states holding caucuses -- following the Obama campaign model of focusing on lower-cost states that can yield a significant number of delegates. Paul's advisers believe his campaign, like Barack Obama's in 2008, is organic and Internet-driven and its supporters are likely to organize themselves in caucus states if they are given the tools to do so.
The Paul campaign's targets include Nevada on Feb. 4 and Colorado and Minnesota on Feb. 7. Colorado and Nevada in particular have a large number of tea party voters, and the Paul campaign believes he can do well there. The campaign announced Friday it would begin a heavy round of advertising in Nevada and Minnesota.
Paul continued during his series of short campaign stops in every corner of the state Friday to breeze through the talking points familiar to his fans, calling for sharply reduced spending, strict adherence to the Constitution, eliminating the Federal Reserve and strictly limiting international military involvement.
Paul has taken to critiquing Santorum in speeches, albeit gently compared to the increasingly barbed back-and-forth between Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Santorum. However, Paul's campaign is running a stinging advertisement referring to Santorum's voting record in Congress as "a record of betrayal."
Paul took an indirect jab at Romney, criticizing his reliance on donations from the banking industry, while pointing to his own campaign's support from U.S. service members drawn to his call for fewer foreign engagements.
"There's a supposed leader in this race and his top three donors are banks, including Goldman Sachs," he said, as many in the audience grumbled.
"Our campaign has a top three donors. First it's the Army, the Air Force and then it's the Navy," he added, prompting a burst of cheers.