Saturday, January 21, 2012

Romney, Gingrich battle in South Carolina race

Presidential rivals Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich battled to win last-minute supporters on Saturday in a South Carolina primary that could reshape the Republican nominating contest.

Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, must win the conservative southern state to secure his front-runner status in the nominating race to challenge Democratic President Barack Obama in November.

Gingrich's recent rise in popularity threatens Romney's momentum.

A victory by the former speaker of the House of Representatives could prolong the state-by-state Republican battle and give Obama's re-election campaign a boost as his Republican would-be opponents beat each other up.

"I'm the only guy's who's spent his life in the real world," said Romney, standing on a chair in a crowded restaurant, Tommy's Country Ham House. He referred to Gingrich as a "Washington insider" and acknowledged he might not lock up the nomination this weekend.

"We've got a long way to go. So come join us in Florida, in Nevada, Michigan, Colorado. We've got a long way to go."

Romney may be helped if the South Carolina conservative vote is splintered among Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and libertarian Congressman Ron Paul.

Gingrich surged again in opinion polls this week after disappointing finishes in the first contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, fending off renewed publicity about his turbulent marital history. He has painted himself as the more conservative candidate whose experience in Washington would make him a stronger leader.

That was convincing to some voters in Charleston.

"I'm scared of Mitt Romney because I don't think he's a conservative," said Brandon Tahquette, 29, an assistant manager at a kitchen store.

"A vote for Newt was a vote against Obama," said Kim Woods, 53, a photographer, who voted for Gingrich. "He's been in D.C. He's been in the political realm. He can get some things done."

A multimillionaire ex-businessman who runs a sleek campaign, Romney has consistently won the support of a quarter of Republicans nationally with his message on jobs and the economy. But he has failed to capture the hearts of many conservatives.

Gingrich is a former history teacher with strong debating skills and a personal life that is dotted with marital infidelity, in contrast to Romney's stable family tableau, punctuated by five sons and 16 grandchildren.

With two other candidates trailing in the polls, the primary looks like a straight fight between the two very different men.

"Newt has positioned himself as the 'anti-Romney' and this strategy has played well in South Carolina," said Republican strategist Ron Christie.

"The question is whether this has broader appeal in more diverse states. As for Romney, this sparring will serve him well for the general election should he become the Republican nominee."


Fueled by a grudge that has become almost personal, Gingrich has sown seeds of doubt among Republicans who were beginning to see Romney as the inevitable nominee after strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Romney has stumbled, acknowledging in the last week he pays a much lower tax rate than many Americans and struggling to answer questions about a planned release of tax records.

Only hours before the voting began in South Carolina, Romney's campaign tried to turn the tables and ask for more information about ethics violations for which Gingrich was sanctioned in Congress in the 1990s.

"Don't you love these guys? He doesn't release anything, he doesn't answer anything. And he's even confused about whether or not he will ever release anything. And then he's decided to pick a fight over releasing stuff," Gingrich said.

Animosity between the two has been festering since December, when a group supporting Romney launched a blitz of negative TV ads in Iowa that effectively ruined Gingrich's campaign there.

He has hit back by attacking Romney's business record.

The fight has been bruising in South Carolina, a conservative state with a history of dirty politics.

Romney's team is playing up his family background. His wife of 42 years, Ann, appears in an ad extolling the virtues needed in a strong president.

"If you really want to know how a person will operate, look at how they have lived their life. And I think that's why it's so important to understand the character of a person," she says.

The winner of South Carolina's Republican presidential primary has gone on to win the party's nomination in every election since 1980. Romney's path to the nomination would be nearly clear if he can clinch the state on Saturday. Polling closes at 7 p.m. eastern.

Romney may be helped if the South Carolina conservative vote is split between Gingrich, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and libertarian congressman Ron Paul.

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