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:
Polls show a real tightening of the race between Romney and Gingrich in South Carolina. While the nomination is still Romney’s to lose, fresh polling shows that Gingrich is closing the gap and is within striking distance of winning in South Carolina on Saturday. A new POLITICO poll shows that Romney remains at the head of the GOP pack with 37 percent of the vote to 30 percent for Gingrich. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, trails with 11 percent, followed by Santorum with 10 percent. A CNN/Time/ORC International poll puts Romney at 33 percent of likely voters, or ten points ahead of Gingrich. As a sign of the former House speaker’s momentum, Gingrich trailed Romney by 19 percentage points two weeks ago, when CNN released its last poll.
National polls show a close Romney/Gingrich race as well. Nationwide, the Romney-Gingrich battle is even closer, with Romney still on top but Gingrich just three points behind. The latest Rasmussen national telephone survey of Likely Republican Primary Voters shows Romney with 30 percent support and Gingrich with 27 percent of the vote. Gingrich jumped 11 percentage points from two weeks ago. Meanwhile, Santorum, who was running second two weeks ago, has now dropped to 15 percent, while Paul captures 13 percent.
The final tally shows that Santorum actually won the Iowa caucuses, but he may not get much of a lift from this. The Iowa Republican party backpedaled on its preliminary ruling that Romney had won the January 3 Iowa Caucuses, and instead declared Santorum the winner by 34 votes when the certified results were announced Thursday.
While the new findings mean Romney can no longer claim to be the victor in the crucial first-in-the-nation caucus, and the first non-incumbent Republican since 1980 to win both in Iowa and New Hampshire, his second place finish may mean little since it is a statistical tie and the Iowa Caucus results do not impact the state's final delegate count.
Romney will likely get hammered again tonight in final debate before the South Carolina primary over his finances and 15 percent effective tax rate. His opponents awakened a sleeping giant last Sunday by broaching the subject of his hidden wealth as a former private equity manager, which is estimated at between $200 and $250 million. The renewed scrutiny led Romney to lose his composure in the Monday night debate, and stumble when asked why he hasn’t released his tax returns — something every Republican and Democratic presidential candidate has done for decades.
On Tuesday, Romney disclosed to reporters that he pays an effective tax rate of about 15 percent. He also said he would release his tax returns this April -- long after the GOP nomination will be decided – prompting even allies such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to urge him to disclose his tax returns “sooner rather than later.”
Gingrich’s ex-wife Marianne is going public with her complaints about the former speaker.
This may be one of the few bits of good news for Romney today. ABC News plans to air a damaging interview with Marianne Gingrich—the second of the former speaker’s three wives—on “Nightline” this evening, after the debate. Marianne Gingrich is the woman Gingrich dumped for his current wife, Callista, who is 23 years younger than the Republican presidential hopeful.
Marianne Gingrich is still bitter about the way she was treated by her former husband, and the details aren’t likely to please some South Carolina Republicans who put great stock in conservative family values. According to a clip of the interview aired this morning on MSNBC, Marianne said that Newt asked her for an “open marriage” so that he could see Callista while remaining married to her. “He was asking to have an open marriage and I refused,” she said.
Marianne previously told The Washington Post that her then-husband dumped her by telephone while she was out of town for her mother’s 84th birthday. The ABC interview might also invoke memories of Newt Gingrich’s decision to divorce his first wife, Jackie, while she was being treated for cancer.