COLUMBIA, South Carolina (CNN) -- Fred Thompson stood in the middle of a gun shop in Greer, South Carolina, this week, trying to sum up the Republican race for the White House.
Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson are in a dead heat in South Carolina, a new poll shows.
"It's a very fluid situation," the former Tennessee senator said. "As far as I'm concerned, it's up to the good Lord and the American people, and that's just fine with me."
Like the national contest, the Republican race in the Palmetto State is essentially a free-for-all, with no candidate able to solidly break free of the rest of the pack.
South Carolina, a crucial test of a candidate's conservative mettle, has voted for the eventual GOP nominee in each election since the state's primary began in 1980.
An AP/Pew poll of likely Republican voters in South Carolina released this week shows a three-way dead heat, with Thompson at 18 percent, just 1 point behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who are tied at 19 percent.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who has sent out at least six glossy direct-mail pieces in the state in recent weeks, comes in at 6 percent.
On top of that, support for all the candidates is soft: Just 44 percent of GOP likely voters said they "strongly support" their choice.
"There are probably going to be two winners here, because I don't see that big of a thread between any of the candidates," said Katon Dawson, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. "It's going be a rough and tumble brawl. It's going to be tough."
The candidates have little time to take the lead. South Carolina's primary is January 19, just more than a week after New Hampshire's January 8 contest.
South Carolinians may get saturated with television ads shortly after the New Year as candidates jostle for position.
"Christmas is coming up, there's going to be some bowl games, and politics will be on the back burner except for in the mail," Dawson said. "As soon as Santa Claus comes down the chimney and leaves, here come the candidates."
But unlike the Democratic candidates, who are overwhelmingly focusing their campaign stops on Iowa, Republicans have made time for South Carolina. Since Thanksgiving, McCain, Giuliani, Paul, Huckabee and Thompson have campaigned in the state.
Only Romney has not visited in recent weeks, but is running strong thanks to nonstop TV ads and a barrage of direct mail pieces.
Romney long held significant leads in Iowa and New Hampshire, but faced low expectations in conservative South Carolina because of questions about his Mormon faith and past support for abortion and gay rights.
Romney's lead in those states is shrinking, but in South Carolina, he's now a front-runner. However, as is the case in Iowa, one of Romney's most cash-strapped opponents could pose the biggest challenge: Huckabee.
Huckabee paid a visit to the state the Sunday after Thanksgiving and slipped easily back into his old ministerial role, giving two sermons at different Baptist churches, telling one congregation, "The only good thing about any of us is the God in us."
At First Baptist church in Fountain Inn, churchgoers waited in line for nearly an hour to shake his hand after the service.
Even Sen. Lindsey Graham, a diehard McCain supporter, admitted Tuesday that "what you see nationally with Huckabee is happening in South Carolina."
Although the AP poll shows Huckabee at 10 percent, the poll's sample period began nearly a month ago, before Huckabee's recent heightened media attention.
McCain has taken an aggressive posture on the campaign trail, not shying away from drawing contrasts with his opponents. He sent out a mailer in October criticizing Giuliani on his support for abortion rights, and he repeatedly hammers his rivals for lacking foreign policy and military experience.
McCain has a long list of endorsements, but immigration continues to be his Achilles' heel because of his support in the Senate of unpopular reform legislation.
At any given campaign stop in the state, if a candidate takes five questions, two or three of those will almost certainly be about illegal immigration and McCain gets plenty.
But the majority of McCain's campaign stops take place in friendly territory, where he gets a hero's welcome -- areas populated by veterans where McCain performed well in 2000.
McCain's biggest challenge in those areas may come from Giuliani. The mayor, his lead bolstered by name recognition, appears in South Carolina less often than other candidates but likes to visit coastal communities heavy with retirees, many of whom moved there from his native New York.
Giuliani even brought along gruff New York Rep. Peter King for a recent campaign stop at a retirement community in Bluffton, with Giuliani touting their shared Brooklyn roots.
Unlike McCain, Giuliani has recently stayed away from Greenville and Spartanburg at the other end of the state, dominated by religious conservatives and much of the state's business community. His campaign, however, did recently open a new office in Spartanburg.
Oran Smith of the Palmetto Family Council, affiliated with Focus on the Family, said Giuliani has been "crowded out" by voters looking for a "true conservative."
"So many now are focusing on people they think are more in line with their values, but can win," he said. "So you've got Romney and Thompson vying for that 'conservative who can win' label, and all of a sudden here comes Huckabee."
Thompson is often criticized nationally for running what some say is a lackadaisical campaign, but he routinely cites his strong poll numbers in the state.
Thompson draws strong crowds in South Carolina and seems to thrive in smaller meet-and-greets, where he jokes about college football and southern food while touting his "consistent conservative" message, frequently criticizing Romney for changing positions on abortion.
Besides Romney, Thompson is the only Republican to run television ads in the state. E-mail to a friend
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