Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is facing mounting pressure in Saturday’s South Carolina primary to show he’s got what it takes to lead his party into the fall campaign against President Obama. But it won't be a cakewalk since a confluence of events making that challenge even tougher and more uncertain.
In the latest twist in the GOP primary drama, Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced this morning he was dropping out of the race and endorsing former House Speaker Newt Gingrich after failing to jump start a once promising candidacy with a strong appeal to religious conservatives and the far right of his party.
“I believe Newt Gingrich has the heart of a conservative reformer—the ability to rally and captivate the conservative movement and the courage to tell those Washington interests to take a hike if that’s what’s in the best interest of our country,” Perry said at a press conference in North Charleston, S.C. Thursday morning. “We’ve had our differences—which campaigns inevitably have—and Newt is not perfect. But who among us is? The fact is, there is forgiveness for those who seek god,” Perry said.
Voters apparently concluded that Perry lacked the intellectual skills and gravitas to go toe-to-toe with Obama in the general election campaign, and he became stuck at the bottom of the polls with no more than five percentage points. Whether his decision to suspend his campaign and throw his support to Gingrich will do much good for the former speaker remains to be seen. “I was very honored and very humbled” by Perry’s endorsement, Gingrich said shortly after Perry’s announcement.
While Perry was drawing less than five percent of the South Carolina Republican electorate in the most recent polls, his departure could help Gingrich bolster his following among Christian conservatives -- possibly at the expense of former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. This comes four days after former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. dropped out and offered a tepid endorsement of Romney.
Gingrich has been building momentum, after a very strong showing in the Monday night debate in Myrtle Beach, with his tough pronouncements about Obama being the “food stamp president” and insistence he’s the only bonafide conservative who could take on Obama in the fall campaign. But Gingrich is carrying a lot of political baggage from his long and checkered political and business careers and stormy personal life that could still haunt him in this weekend’s crucial primary. Gingrich and Romney will have one more big chance to state their cases in another GOP debate scheduled for this evening.
Here are the most important moving pieces: