Political News

Romney stumbles down stretch before pivotal SC primary

Posted January 20, 2012 3:43 a.m. EST
Updated January 20, 2012 7:46 p.m. EST

— A poll released on the eve of South Carolina's presidential primary on Saturday showed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has surrendered his once-commanding lead in the state to former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich had a 35-29 percent lead over Romney in the poll, which was conducted Wednesday and Thursday, before a final debate between the four remaining Republican presidential candidates. Ten percent of voters remain undecided, prompting cautious optimism from both Gingrich and Romney.

Romney pronounced himself in a neck-and-neck race with Gingrich and pressed his chief rival to release more details about his ethical problems as House speaker. Gingrich's camp countered that Romney's campaign was "on a panic attack" after losing ground in recent polls.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Congressman Ron Paul argued they were still in the mix after South Carolina's Sen. Jim DeMint declared the state a "two-man race." Little more than a week ago, DeMint had been predicting a Romney win.

"Things have changed so much in a week, it's almost unbelievable," said Robert Oldendick, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina.

"I was one of those people who, a week ago, was saying this really looks like this was Romney's race to lose," Oldendick said. "The attacks, the stumbles that he's made, have really changed the nature of this campaign."

Romney has dropped in the polls for a number of reasons, Oldendick said, beginning with his failure to satisfy voters as to why he has yet to release his income taxes.

"I think it's irrelevant. I know he's a wealthy man, and that's the bottom line. I don't really care, but I think his staff has made a serious omission by not anticipating this issue," Republican voter Graham Tribble said.

"I imagine, with all the money he's got and all the things he's doing, he's got to make sure that all those ducks are lined up and he's not making any mistakes before he released (his returns)," Republican voter Earl Loftis said.

Oldendick also noted that Gingrich has been able to paint himself as a conservative alternative to Romney, which gives him traction with voters in conservative South Carolina.

"As a state that goes red, there's just very little room for compromise," Republican voter Beth Ann Sample said.

Gingrich capitalizes on marital questions

The thrice-married Gingrich successfully fended off questions about his marital problems, attacking the media during Thursday night's debate for publicizing allegations from his ex-wife that he asked for an "open marriage" more than a decade ago so he could continue an affair with a congressional staffer.

Oldendick said the exchange amounts to old news and said there is more at stake in the primary.

"The issues are going to play a much more important role in determining the outcome of this election than personal issues and, kind of, the candidate's personal history at this point," he said.

Loftis called Gingrich's blast at the media "spot on."

"I think it's what needed to be said. I think voters in South Carolina and all across the nation are fed up with the negative campaigning in general," he said.

Sample said, however, that Gingrich's background is troubling.

"It starts to ruin what I see their integrity is, and I think a lot of people in the state of South Carolina also care about that," she said.

National Republican Party Chairman Reince Preibus, in an appearance on CNN, said "a little bit of drama" was good for the GOP as it sorts out the strongest challenger to Obama, and that the tone wasn't all that negative.

South Carolina GOP officials said they expect about 460,000 voters in the primary.

Santorum, Paul battle to remain viable candidates

Santorum, who opened his day on C-SPAN, said the GOP presidential race "has just transformed itself in the last 24 hours" and that he's still very much a contender. He said he was finally drawing enough campaign contributions to compete aggressively in next-up Florida and beyond, even if he finishes poorly in South Carolina.

At an appearance in Lexington, he offered himself as a just-right "Goldilocks" candidate, positioned between Gingrich and Romney.

"One candidate is too radioactive, a little too hot," Santorum said, referring to Gingrich. "There's too much about that candidate that we don't want to have" in a race that must focus on Obama's record, he said. "And we have another candidate who is just too darn cold, who doesn't have bold plans," Santorum said, alluding to Romney.

The libertarian-leaning Paul, whose support has slipped with his light campaign effort in the state, spoke to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference and said Saturday's primary could be a "significant event" that will help propel his insurgent campaign forward. He also warned voters not to back candidates who support the status quo and who won't make deep cuts to federal spending.

Gingrich scrapped an appearance before the group due to what campaign aides said was poor attendance. Conference organizers blamed a scheduling conflict.

Romney opened Friday with fresh endorsements from Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and three House members from Texas, who lined up with him after Texas Gov. Rick Perry dropped out of the race on Thursday.

Gingrich countered with an endorsement from Michael Reagan, the son of the former president who is dear to the heart of conservatives.

Tax records at issue

Gingrich released his income tax records during the course of Thursday's debate, paving the way to discussing Romney's. The wealthy former venture capitalist has said he will release them in April, prompting Gingrich to suggest that would be too late for voters to decide if they presented evidence Obama could exploit.

"If there's anything that's in there that's going to help us lose the election, we should know before the election. If there's not, why not release it?" Gingrich said. His effective tax rate, roughly 31.6 percent of his adjusted income, was about double what Romney told reporters earlier this week he had paid.

Romney, asked about the issue Friday on Fox News Channel, said he didn't want to give Obama and the Democrats a "nice little present of having multiple releases." He said past GOP nominees John McCain and George W. Bush before him released their taxes at tax deadline time, and said he'd do likewise. He didn't say how many years of returns he would release.

He shifted to offense in calling on Gingrich to release more records from his ethics investigation.

In January 1997, Gingrich became the first speaker ever reprimanded and fined for ethics violations, slapped with a $300,000 penalty. Gingrich admitted he'd failed to follow legal advice concerning the use of tax-exempt contributions to advance potentially partisan goals.

Romney's supporters, meanwhile, went after Gingrich, arguing in a conference call with reporters that as House speaker he oversaw spending on lawmakers' special projects. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., called Gingrich "the granddaddy of earmarks." Rep. John Campbell, R-Calif., said Gingrich was "the guy who began the process which led to the debts and deficits that we have."