South Carolina GOP primary races to dramatic close
Romney is fighting a suddenly surging Gingrich, while rivals Rick Santorum and Ron Paul look to surprise in a four-man race that has spun wildly in its last 48 hours.
Seen as Romney's to lose just days ago, South Carolina's primary has become a close contest between Romney, the former Massachusetts governor portraying himself as the best able to beat President Barack Obama, and Gingrich, the confrontational former House speaker and former Georgia congressman.
Both were scheduled to hold dueling campaign events at Tommy's, in Republican-rich Greenville, late Saturday morning. And neither campaign was stepping back from a primary day showdown.
It's "neck and neck," Romney declared Friday, moving to lower expectations for a race he led by double digits as of midweek.
Even as Romney was touting his electability in November, he continued to try to stoke doubt about Gingrich's ethics.
Gingrich, buoyed by the endorsement of Texas Gov. Rick Perry as he left the race Thursday, called Romney's suggestion that his chief rival release documents relating to an ethics investigation from the 1990s a "panic attack" brought on by sinking poll numbers.
Romney's demand was turnabout from Gingrich's that Romney release his income tax returns before the weekend primary. Gingrich argues that GOP voters need to know whether the wealthy former venture capital executive's records contain anything that could hurt the party's chances against Obama.
The stakes were high for Saturday's vote. The primary winner has gone on to win the Republican nomination in every election since 1980. And voters were faced with stamping Romney, who has led in national polls since December, as the party's front-runner, or reshuffle the contest.
Romney won the New Hampshire primary by a wide marign on Jan. 10, and was thought to have edged Santorum in a photo-finish in Iowa's leadoff caucuses. However, the certified count from Iowa on Thursday showed Santorum had received more votes, although a handful of precincts remained uncertain and no winner was declared.
Romney, Gingrich and Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator vying to be the preferred conservative, all planned to campaign in South Carolina's conservative upstate as the voting got under way. Paul, the Texas congressman who has campaigned lightly here, had no campaign appearances scheduled but was expected to visit campaign volunteers.
Behind the flurry of public events around the state Friday, telephones and televisions crackled with attack messages. Some of South Carolina's notorious 11th-hour devilry — fake reports in the form of emails targeting Gingrich and his ex-wife Marianne — emerged in a race known as much for its nastiness as for its late-game twists.
"Unfortunately, we are now living up to our reputation," said South Carolina GOP strategist Chip Felkel.
State Attorney Gen. Alan Wilson ordered a preliminary review of the phony messages to see if any laws had been broken.
Gingrich's ex-wife burst into the campaign this week when she alleged in an ABC News interview that her former husband had asked her for an "open marriage," a potentially damaging claim in a state where the Republican primary electorate includes a potent segment of Christian conservatives. The thrice-married Gingrich, who has admitted to marital infidelities, angrily denied her accusation.