GOP campaign turns bizarre in SC; debate is next

Mitt Romney was stripped of his Iowa caucus victory Thursday,
then was stung by Texas Gov. Rick Perry's withdrawal and
endorsement of Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who was
stunningly accused in turn by an ex-wife of seeking an open
marriage so he could keep his mistress.

"Newt's not perfect, but who among us is," said Perry,
abruptly quitting the race shortly before an evening debate and
less than 48 hours before the polls open in Saturday's
first-in-the-South primary.

His decision to end a once-promising candidacy left Romney,
Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul the remaining contenders in the race to pick a Republican to challenge Democratic President Barack Obama this fall.

Recent polls, coupled with Perry's endorsement, suggested
Gingrich was the candidate with the momentum and Romney the one
struggling to validate his standing as front-runner. Whatever else
the impact, the day's events reduced the number of conservatives
vying to emerge as Romney's principal alternative.

The former Massachusetts governor had other challenges in a
state where unemployment approaches 10 percent. He adamantly
refused to explain why some of his millions were invested in the
Cayman Islands, how much was there or whether any other funds were held offshore.

Under pressure from his rivals to release his income tax returns
before the weekend - a demand first made by Perry in a debate on
Monday - he told reporters it wouldn't happen. "You'll hear more
about that. April," he said.

Gingrich grappled with problems of a different, possibly even
more crippling sort in a state where more than half the Republican
electorate is evangelical.

In an interview scheduled to air on ABC News, Marianne Gingrich
said her ex-husband had wanted an "open marriage" so he could
have both a wife and a mistress. She said Gingrich conducted an
affair with Callista Bistek - his current wife - "in my bedroom in
our apartment in Washington" while she was elsewhere.

"He was asking to have an open marriage and I refused. That is
not a marriage," she said in excerpts released by the network in
advance of the program.

Gingrich declined to respond to his ex-wife's comments, telling
reporters his two daughters from the first of his three marriages
had sent a letter to ABC "complaining about this as tawdry and
inappropriate."

In fact, the letter made no such accusations. Instead, Kathy
Lubbers and Jackie Cushman wrote ABC that anyone who has endured a failed marriage "understands it is a personal tragedy filled with regrets, and sometimes differing memories of events."

The interview with the second of Gingrich's two ex-wives and the
evening debate weren't the only political events in the run-up to
the Saturday primary. Television commercials for the remaining
candidates and their allies ran virtually without letup, generally
designed to diminish each other's support.

According to information made available to The Associated Press,
targeted viewers in most regions of the state were watching an
average of about six commercials a day paid for by Romney's
campaign and Restore Our Future, a group supporting him. Gingrich,
Paul, Santorum and their backers raised the total higher.

Santorum ran commercials likening Romney to Obama; Gingrich's
cast the former speaker as the only candidate who could defeat the
president this fall. In a sign of the shifting campaign, Restore
Our Future stopped attacking Santorum so it could concentrate its
fire on Gingrich.

Santorum, whose fortunes have ebbed since what appeared to be a
narrow loss in Iowa, pronounced himself the winner there after all
when state party officials in Des Moines announced he had finished
34 votes ahead of Romney instead of eight behind.

Iowa Republican chairman Matt Strawn said the party would not
name an official winner because the results were so close and some
votes couldn't be counted. Results from eight of the state's 1,774
precincts were not certified to the state party by Wednesday's 5
p.m. deadline.

It was Strawn who had stepped before a microphone shortly before
2 a.m. in Des Moines on Jan. 4 to declare Romney the victor.

That announcement propelled the former Massachusetts governor
into New Hampshire, where he breezed to victory in the opening
primary of the campaign a week later.

He arrived in South Carolina the following day, front-runner
then for sure, now more shakily so.

Perry's withdrawal mimicked one earlier in the week by former
Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman in that they both quit a few hours before a
debate.

The similarities ended there, though. Huntsman endorsed Romney.

Perry had other thoughts, calling Gingrich a "conservative
visionary who can transform our country."

Echoing words Huntsman said of Romney, Perry said he and
Gingrich had their differences.

And in saying the former speaker was not perfect, he sought to
provide political cover of a type that might reassure South
Carolina voters for whom religious values are important.

"The fact is, there is forgiveness for those who seek God and I
believe in the power of redemption, for it is a central tenet of my
own Christian faith," Perry said.

His decision to withdraw set off a scramble among the remaining
contenders for the allegiance of his supporters and donors, both in
the state and nationally.

State Rep. Chip Limehouse of Charleston said he was expecting to
speak by phone with both Romney and Gingrich later in the day
before making up his mind.

"I'm looking and I really do think tonight's debate will
determine the next president of the United States. That's how
important it is," Peeler said.

Perry's exit marked the end of a campaign that began with
soaring expectations but quickly faded. He shot to the head of the
public opinion polls when he announced his candidacy last summer,
but a string of poor debate performances soon led to a decline in
support.

His defining moment came at one debate when he unaccountably
could not recall the third of three federal agencies he has
promised to abolish. He joked about it afterward but never
recovered from the fumble.

In his farewell appearance as a candidate, he said he was bowing
out of the 2012 campaign, seemingly a hint he would run again in
four years if Republicans fail to win the White House this time.

An aide, Ray Sullivan was more explicit, telling reporters Perry
hasn't ruled out running for governor again or for the White House
in 2016 if Obama is re-elected.
---
Associated Press writers Thomas Beaumont, Beth Fouhy, Philip
Elliott, Kasie Hunt and Shannon McCaffrey in South Carolina
contributed to this story.

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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