Johanna Owens recently re-formed Charleston County's Young Republicans club, so she's plugged in to politics.

But when asked which way the club's members are leaning in the upcoming presidential primary, she acknowledges that they're much like the rest of the nation: all over the place.

"They're pretty evenly split as far as I can tell," she said Tuesday night during a North Charleston campaign stop by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. "We have a lot of people who are undecided, who are just taking it all in right now."

The 2008 presidential campaign has been waged here for more than a year, and with the state's GOP primary just one month from today, and the Democratic primary a week later, the frontrunners seem to change each day.

Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political science professor, said the race is surprising not only because it started so early but also because no one has been able to remain alone on top.

"There's still a tight knot at the front," he said.

On the Republican side, the knot includes Southern candidates such as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson.

Romney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani remain surprisingly popular in this Deep South state. And Sen. John McCain, who many had written off after his campaign floundered earlier this year, is coming back and has visited South Carolina 13 times since Nov. 1.

U.S. Rep. Ron Paul is on the radar screen as well. His supporters held up a large "Ron Paul" sign outside the North Charleston Sticky Fingers restaurant where Romney campaigned.

As the days count down to the primaries, the candidates will increasingly turn their focus on South Carolina. That means more visits, more commercials and more decisions for voters.

Dean Glossop of Inman decided about a week and a half ago that he'd support Romney after his recent "religion speech," and Glossop saw Romney firsthand Tuesday morning in Spartanburg.

Glossop said he wanted to support Thompson, and was excited when Thompson announced he would run, but "the stereotype is correct, he (Thompson) thinks, 'Well, I'll be president if you want me to.' "

Glossop said he was impressed with McCain but has a few fundamental disagreements, such as McCain's stance on campaign finance reform and the so-called detainee bill of rights.

"I don't know if this is any more important than any other election, but I guess it is just because of all of the uncertainty," Glossop said. "The world used to be a lot simpler when it was just us versus the Soviets. It's a lot more complex now."

During three of Romney's South Carolina stops, he talked about strengthening the military, the economy and the family, while also mentioning his immigration plan to secure the border and require tamper-proof ID cards as a condition of employment in the United States.

He also took off the gloves a few times. Romney said that as governor he vetoed a bill that would have given illegal immigrants a break on in-state college tuition, and the veto was upheld. Huckabee, who has become a Romney target since surging in the polls, fought for a provision that would give in-state tuition to illegal immigrants and scholarships "paid for by taxpayers," Romney said.

Romney also ripped Giuliani on immigration, saying he presided over a "sanctuary city."

Voters should expect more of that, Huffmon said, adding that radio and TV ads aired in South Carolina will expand exponentially in number and nastiness.

"Yes, it's sickening, but as a political scientist, I sort of have this horrible glee, this eagerness about what are they going to do," he said. "This is a fun season."

Meanwhile, the Democratic candidates have appeared in South Carolina less often than their Republican counterparts, largely because they're waging a close and important race in Iowa.

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards have visited the state only about half as many times as McCain has since Nov. 1, but the three are using surrogates to drum up support and keep their campaigns in the news here.

Former Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus and former Oklahoma Rep. Brad Carson crossed this state to make their case that Obama would fare the best in traditionally Republican states such as their home states as well as South Carolina.

"Our states have been written off very early in the (general election) campaign," Mabus said during a stop Tuesday in Charleston. He noted that Jimmy Carter has been the only Democratic presidential candidate to carry Mississippi during the past 50 years, but he thinks Obama has a shot, too.

"I believe Barack Obama will bring people into the voting system who have not been there before," he said. "I think one of his big advantages is he hasn't been in Washington very long."

Carson also emphasized Obama's stronger polling numbers among Republicans (40 percent of whom view him favorably according to the Pew Research Center) and independents (67 percent of whom view him favorably, the same poll says).

Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry stopped by a King Street law office Tuesday on behalf of Giuliani. "What's a Texas governor doing in South Carolina to campaign for a Yankee mayor?" Perry asked, drawing laughs from about 20 supporters who showed up.

Perry, national co-chairman of the Rudy Giuliani Presidential Committee, called Giuliani "the only true Ronald Reagan supply-side fiscal conservative in the race. ... He's the best chance of us never hearing those horrible words — 'President Clinton.' "

Huffmon said Republicans have been trying to win hearts and minds with one of two strategies. One, like Giuliani's, is to claim they're the most likely to defeat Clinton and keep the White House in the GOP column. Other Republican hopefuls are vying for the mantle of being considered the purest, truest conservative.

After New Hampshire votes Jan. 8, that will change for candidates in both parties. A far more frantic race will be afoot.

"It's almost like the game resets after Iowa-New Hampshire," he said. "All of a sudden momentum becomes all-important. Somebody is going to have it, and somebody is going to need to stop it. It goes from a beauty pageant to a horse race very quickly."