White House contenders fanned out Thursday as the gripping US presidential race headed into a series of make-or-break contests and rival Republicans limbered up for a debate “brawl.”

The Democratic field, thrown wide open by Hillary Clinton’s surprise win in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, thinned out with the withdrawal of New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.

Clinton’s vanquished opponent on Tuesday, Barack Obama, won the backing of 2004 Democratic standard-bearer John Kerry, as Obama wowed supporters in sunny South Carolina with his call that “our time for change has come.”

Top Republicans sparred in Michigan, a battleground state scarred by industrial decline, before descending on South Carolina for a high-stakes evening debate.

“These guys are ready for a brawl,” South Carolina Republican chairman Katon Dawson told AFP ahead of the televised encounter.

“Somebody is going to get a knock-out punch tonight. If it’s not spirited, maybe we wore them out,” he said.

New Hampshire winner John McCain and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney traded blows at competing rallies in Michigan ahead of its Republican primary on January 15, before heading south for the debate.

Romney has yanked his TV advertising from South Carolina and Florida to focus all his fire on Michigan, where he was born, after his lavishly funded campaign tripped up embarrassingly at the first two hurdles.

Senator Kerry, who lost the 2004 election to President George W. Bush, told a raucous rally in Charleston that “more than anyone else, Barack Obama can help our country turn the page.”

Swatting aside the Clinton charge that Obama’s inspirational oratory offers “false hopes” to voters, Kerry said: “My friends, the only charge that rings false is one that tells you not to hope for a better tomorrow.”

The Obama campaign will be hoping Kerry’s endorsement might influence other Democratic powerbrokers who have so far stayed neutral in the nail-biting nomination race.

Kerry’s vice presidential running mate in 2004, John Edwards, is back in the race this year, and is battling to avert a crippling loss in his native South Carolina after disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire.

In a statement, Edwards said he respected Kerry’s decision to support his rival but said November’s presidential election was “about the future, not the past.”

Edwards portrays the former first lady is part of a discredited old guard that must be swept aside to move the United States on from two decades of Bush and Clinton presidencies.

But the New York senator was in fighting mood, after her come-from-behind triumph in New Hampshire short-circuited Obama’s Iowa surge and set up a truly nationwide contest.

Acknowledging that she had faced a “big problem” as her campaign floundered, the steely Clinton said she had exposed her inner self when she nearly wept during a public event the day before the New Hampshire vote.

“And I just determined that I was going to dig down deep and reach out and listen and talk,” she told CBS News in an interview aired late Wednesday.

Richardson, a Hispanic former UN ambassador, called time on his campaign after his fourth-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire.

“I gave this race the best I had,” he said, quitting ahead of the January 19 caucuses in Nevada, where polls suggest he is well behind despite the state’s large Hispanic community.

Richardson said he would stay on the fence as the Democratic survivors fight it out, and refused to speculate that he could be a running mate as a vice presidential candidate.

Clinton campaigned in Nevada while Obama ventured into the stew of race, religion and cut-throat machinations that is politics in South Carolina, which holds its Democratic primary on January 26.

The Republican winner in Iowa, former Arkansas governor and Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee, wooed South Carolina’s evangelical conservatives before heading Friday to Michigan, where his economic populism is resonating.

Further south, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani remained camped out in Florida as the Republican lay in wait for “Super Tuesday” on February 5, when more than 20 states including California and New York will be in play.

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