January 20, 2012 in Nation/World

String of twists rattles Republican race

Perry quits, backs Gingrich; Romney loses Iowa victory
Mark Z. Barabak Los Angeles Times

COLUMBIA, S.C. – In one of the wildest days of a tumultuous presidential campaign, one candidate quit, another was stripped of his victory in Iowa and a third was scalded by his ex-wife in a brutal national television interview.

By the close of Thursday, however, the contours of the Republican race remained about where they were 24 hours earlier: with a jostling field of contenders vying to emerge as the alternative to front-runner Mitt Romney by scoring a breakthrough here in South Carolina.

In that way, the upheaval served only to underscore the dynamic of a contest that has been unsettled for months, save for one constant: Romney’s good fortune as a series of twists has kept any single opponent from gaining desperately needed traction.

The day began with a buzz about Marianne Gingrich’s ABC News interview – in which she proclaimed her ex-husband, Newt Gingrich, morally unfit for office. It quickly turned to talk of Rick Santorum’s victory in Iowa, by a scant 34 votes over Romney, who was originally declared the winner. That news was soon overtaken by Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s surprise decision to quit the race and throw his support behind Gingrich, in a seeming bid to slow Romney’s momentum.

Capping it all was a debate less than 48 hours before the polls open, with the former Massachusetts governor in his customary place at center stage, making for an inviting target. But as they often have throughout the campaign, his rivals saved their harshest attacks for one another – and the media – leaving the front-runner relatively unscathed.

Romney has been leading the polls in South Carolina, but evidence suggests a Gingrich surge and the front-runner Thursday for the second day abandoned his above-it-all stance to lay into the former House speaker.

Speaking to supporters in Charleston, Romney called himself the lone Washington outsider running against a pack of insiders and mocked Gingrich for claiming credit for creating jobs while in Congress.

President Barack Obama “may bump into Speaker Gingrich down there in Fantasyland,” Romney quipped, referring to Thursday’s presidential trip to Disney World.

Gingrich, in turn, kept up his assault on Romney and welcomed the endorsement of Texas Gov. Perry, urging South Carolinians “to nominate a bold Reagan conservative who will offer a dramatic contrast with President Obama.”

Gingrich’s efforts were overshadowed, however, by the comments his second wife made to ABC News, snippets of which aired throughout the day. In the interview, Marianne Gingrich said her ex-husband sought permission to keep a mistress. The other woman was Callista Bisek, a former congressional staffer who is now Gingrich’s third wife.

“He wanted an open marriage,” Marianne Gingrich said, “and I refused.”

The candidate dismissed reporters’ questions about the interview Thursday, but seemed to allude to it during a speech in Walterboro when he said his family had deep discussions before he decided to run. “We knew we would have attack ads, we knew the news media would be as destructive as they could be and so we had to raise the question, ‘Do you really want to go through that?’ ” Gingrich said.

At the debate Thursday night in North Charleston, Gingrich lashed out angrily at the news media for the fresh reporting on his failed second marriage. “Trash,” Gingrich called it, as he was asked to respond to media reports on Marianne Gingrich’s interview.

“I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that,” Gingrich said, his face flush with anger, when asked about the interview in the opening question of a two-hour debate on CNN.

Gingrich railed at ABC News for airing it, at CNN for asking about it, and at the news media generally for “destructive, negative” reporting – all drawing loud cheers and applause from the Republican audience of about 2,500.

“To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary a significant question is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine,” he said, voice rising.

In one of the odder turns of the campaign, meanwhile, Republican officials in Iowa announced a revised tally that put former Pennsylvania Sen. Santorum in first place ahead of Romney, who originally appeared to have won the Jan. 3 caucuses by eight votes.

Party rules call for a 14-day period to certify results from more than 1,700 precincts, a process that ended Wednesday night. Saying that some numbers were still missing, Iowa officials declared the contest a split decision, a ruling that Romney embraced.

Santorum, however, insisted he was the clear victor and trumpeted the outcome as proof that he was the strongest contender against Romney. “It says that we can win elections,” Santorum told reporters at a stop in Mount Pleasant. “We can organize, we can put together an effort to pull the resources together … because guess what? We defeated Mitt Romney in Iowa.”

The question was whether there was enough time left in South Carolina for Santorum to capitalize, or whether Perry’s endorsement of Gingrich buried the news and would instead lift Gingrich past the rest of the field, which also includes Texas Rep. Ron Paul.

There were signs that Romney would gain the most financially from the withdrawal. On Thursday, two top Perry fundraisers – Mississippi-based political strategist Henry Barbour and Dirk Van Dongen, a lobbyist who co-chaired the governor’s fundraising efforts in Washington – signed onto the Romney team.

Surrounded by grim-faced family members, Perry announced his decision to quit just about five months after he launched his candidacy, saying he saw no reasonable path to victory.

Perry entered the contest buoyed by high expectations and for a time was the leader in national opinion surveys. But a series of poor debate performances – capped by one in which he froze and failed to remember the third of three federal agencies he vowed to eliminate – turned the Texas governor into something of a national punch line.

McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.

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