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GOP candidates sharpen barbs

By now, it's likely that Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich has won the South Carolina primary in a contest that is narrowing to a two-man battle.

For Romney, anything close would be considered a loss after he came in with a double-digit lead following wins in the New Hampshire primary and the Iowa caucus, though his razor-thin eight-vote win in Iowa may not hold up.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the former front runner, didn't help Romney -- or Rick Santorum, for that matter -- when he tossed his support to Gingrich when he bowed out of the race last week.

As the campaign turns to the Jan. 31 Florida presidential preference primary, it looks like the contest will be more of the same as Romney and Gingrich battle it out, and Santorum and Ron Paul look for opportunities to move up. Romney wants to see every blemish Gingrich might have on his ethics investigation from 15 years ago that resulted in a reprimand, and Gingrich wants Romney to show his tax returns, which the former Massachusetts governor says he will do -- in April ... long after Super Tuesday and very likely well after the Republican Party has for all practical purposes already determined its challenger who will face President Obama in November.

Both Gingrich and Romney are demonstrating an ability to play political hardball, which is certainly what either would face in the fall campaign. The question is whether they are beating up each other so much that they're doing the Democrats' job for them. The discourse has moved sharply from "why you should vote for me" to "why you shouldn't vote for him."

Meanwhile, Democrats seem to feel energized about the prospects of a repeat win for Obama. Already a Democrat-friendly Super PAC is taking shots at Romney in Florida, spending $1 million to associate him with Gov. Rick Scott, not the most popular businessman turned politician in the Sunshine State.

And you can bet Super PACs supporting Romney and Gingrich will be dropping some major bucks in Florida, where 50 convention delegates are at stake.

The only certainty is that more public discourse will be coming up. Whether it's discourse fit for public consumption is another matter.

-- The Albany Herald Editorial Board