North Charleston, SC (AP) - The race for the Republican presidential nomination took a turn toward the South Carolina surreal Thursday as Rick Perry dropped out, Newt Gingrich faced stunning allegations from an ex-wife and Mitt Romney struggled to maintain a shaky front-runner's standing.
An aggressive evening debate capped the bewildering day.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum played aggressor for much of the night, trying to inject himself into what seemed increasingly like a two-way race with little more than a day remaining until the South Carolina polls open on Saturday. He accused Gingrich and Romney of "playing footsies with the left" when it came to health care. Both men rejected the allegations.
The debate began a few hours after first word that Romney had been stripped of his Iowa caucus victory, only to be stung a few hours later by Perry's withdrawal and endorsement of Gingrich.
Gingrich, in turn, was accused 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 just before the first-in-the-South primary.
His decision to end a once-promising candidacy left Romney, Gingrich, Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul the remaining contenders in the race to pick a Republican to challenge Democratic President Barack Obama this fall.
Nine hours after Perry exited one stage, the four remaining contenders walked onto another for a final pre-primary debate.
Gingrich angrily denounced the news media for putting his ex-wife front and center in the final days of the race. "Let me be clear, the story is false," he said. Santorum, Romney and Paul steered well clear of the controversy. "Let's get onto the real issues, that's all I've got to say," said Romney, although he pointed out that he and his wife, Ann, have been married for 42 years.
The audience gave Gingrich a standing ovation when he assailed the media, a reaction he can only hope is reflected in voter sentiment on Saturday.
All four remaining GOP candidates lustily attacked Obama, while Santorum in particular sought to raise his own profile.
Introduced to the audience at the outset, he mentioned his change of fortunes in Iowa, where an evident eight-vote defeat in caucuses on Jan 3 was belated transformed into a 34-vote advantage - though the Iowa Republican Party did not declare a winner.
Santorum jabbed at both Gingrich and Romney, but seemed to focus more attention on the former. If Gingrich is the party nominee, he said, "you sort of have that worrisome moment that something's going to pop. And we can't afford that in a nominee."
In a reflection of the complex political dynamics of the race, first Gingrich and then Santorum challenged Romney over his well-documented switch of position on abortion. Once a supporter of a woman's life to choose, he now says he is "pro-life."
Gingrich didn't exactly question Romney's change in position, but he didn't embrace it, either, saying, "He had an experience in a lab and became pro-life."
Romney bristled. "I'm not questioned on character or integrity very often. I don't feel like standing here for that."
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 contenders vying to emerge as Romney's principal conservative 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, a position he renewed during the debate to jeers from the audience.
Gingrich pursued an approach Perry used in the earlier debate.
"If there's anything that's in there that's going to help us lose the election, we should know before the election. If there's not, why not release it?" he said.
Gingrich released his own tax return during the day, reporting that he paid the IRS $613,517 in taxes on more than $3.1 million in income. He also donated about 2 percent of his income to charity.
His effective tax rate, roughly 31.6 percent of his adjusted income, was about double what Romney told reporters earlier this week he had paid.
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.
He said his two daughters from the first of his three marriages - the ex-wife making the accusations was the second of three - 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."
Those 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.
"There have been two contests. We won one," he said, and he proceeded to ridicule Romney and Gingrich as weak challengers to Obama. "How can you differentiate ourselves on the major issues of the day if we nominate tweedledum and tweedledee instead of someone who stood up and said, `No'?" he said to one audience, referring to his opposition to a requirement to purchase health care coverage.
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.
Santorum Urges Conservatives to Stay with his Run
by Philip Elliot
Charleston, SC (AP) - Rick Santorum on Thursday pleaded with conservatives not to give up on his presidential hopes, urging them to resist calls to shift to rivals whom he mocked as "Tweedledum and Tweedledee" who were busy "playing footsies with the left."
Relishing his turn in the role of aggressor, Santorum tweaked his rivals during a day of campaigning and then in a toe-to-toe confrontation with them during the final debate before South Carolina polls on Saturday. The race seemed to turn to a two-man contest between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, and Santorum sought to derail both with scathing criticism.
"If we are going to be successful in this race, we have to nominate someone who is going to make Barack Obama the issue in this race, not be the issue himself in the race," Santorum told supporters as he began a day that ushered rival Rick Perry from the campaign.
"We can't have a candidate that, every day when you open the newspaper, it's an `Oh, my - oh, what did he say today?' moment. We need someone who is stable," he continued.
As proof that Santorum still has juice, the former Pennsylvania senator crowed that updated results from the Iowa caucuses that show Santorum actually edged Romney in the first state to weigh in on the Republican nomination battle, and he pointed to a new endorsement from James Dobson, who founded the conservative Focus on the Family organization.
"There have been two contests," Santorum said. "We won one."
He made that claim even though the Iowa GOP did not declare a victor because of missing ballots at some precincts.
Santorum bested Romney by 34 votes in the final tally of Iowa's caucuses, Republican officials said Thursday. But no winner was declared because some votes remain uncertified two weeks after the event's closest contest ever. The state GOP initially declared Romney the victor - by just eight votes.
"This is a solid win. It's a much stronger win than the win Gov. Romney claimed to have," Santorum declared.
Romney, who won New Hampshire's primary, called the Iowa results a "virtual tie." Santorum called it a sign that any calls for him to leave were premature.
"We feel very, very good about what this win will mean," Santorum said of Iowa's fresh results. "It says that we can win elections. We can organize. We can put together an effort to pull the resources together to be able to be successful in being the person who can defeat Mitt Romney. Guess what? We defeated Mitt Romney in Iowa."
Santorum is knitting together a grass-roots organization of socially conservative Republicans, including pastors, similar the one that helped him finish at the top in Iowa.
"Everywhere I go it feels just like Iowa," said Chuck Laudner, who was a senior Iowa adviser to Santorum and now is leading the effort to woo clergy in South Carolina.
Santorum's advisers, however, worry that Romney has an advantage among voters who have already cast absentee ballots. With Romney running strong in the polls and fundraising, conservatives who oppose his nomination are trying to build a coalition around one of their own. Santorum said that choice should be him - and not Gingrich, who picked up the endorsement of one-time contender Perry earlier in the day.
Looking to motivate the conservatives, Santorum urged voters to consider his rivals' records.
"These two guys were playing footsies with left," he swiped during an evening debate.
Santorum also urged conservatives to imagine what a head-to-head contest with Obama will hold. He said both Gingrich and Romney had shared Obama's views on the Wall Street bailout and health care mandates in the past, muting potential criticism of the incumbent president.
"How can you differentiate ourselves on the major issues of the day if we nominate Tweedledum and Tweedledee," Santorum told conservatives later in Charleston, "instead of someone who stood up and said, `No'?"
Associated Press writer Thomas Beaumont contributed to this report.
Gingrich Angrily Denies He Sought Open Marriage
by Shannon McCaffrey
Charleston, SC (AP) - Presidential contender Newt Gingrich on Thursday angrily denied that he asked his second wife for an "open marriage" that would allow him to have a mistress as she claims in an interview broadcast two days before the South Carolina primary.
"Let me be quite clear. The story is false," Gingrich said at a debate, without elaborating.
At the same time, his campaign released his tax returns, showing that he paid more than $994,000 in federal taxes on more $3.1 million in income in 2010.
It was a day of ups and downs for Gingrich, who picked up the endorsement for former rival Texas Gov. Rick Perry. The former House speaker is working to consolidate the support of conservatives behind his candidacy with polls showing him rising in his bid to overtake Republican front-runner Mitt Romney.
"Newt is not perfect but who among us is," Perry said as he bowed out of the race, seeking to provide Gingrich with some political cover in a state filled with evangelicals likely to cringe at Gingrich's two divorces and acknowledged infidelity.
Gingrich's ex-wife threatened to throw his campaign off course.
In excerpts the network released earlier in the day, Marianne Gingrich told ABC News in an interview being broadcast late Thursday that when she discovered Gingrich was having an affair with Callista Bisek, a congressional staffer, he asked his wife to share him.
"And I just stared at him, and he said, `Callista doesn't care what I do,'" Marianne Gingrich told ABC News. "He wanted an open marriage, and I refused."
She confirmed to The Associated Press that the former speaker had asked her for an open marriage, but she refused his request. She declined to comment further.
At the debate Thursday, Gingrich forcefully denied his ex-wife's charges and castigated debate moderator - CNN's John King - for raising the issue at the start of the two-hour long event.
"I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office," Gingrich said. "And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that."
As he stood on stage in Charleston, his campaign released his 2010 income tax returns, which showed he paid roughly 31.6 percent of his adjusted income in taxes, giving about 2 percent to charity. Gingrich criticized rival Romney - who is worth more than $250 million - this week for saying he paid only 15 percent.
Gingrich gave $81,133 in cash or checks to charities, about 2.6 percent of his income. That is considerably less than the average of $259,692 that households earning at least $2 million a year gave to charities in 2009, according to research from the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.
Personal financial disclosure forms filed last summer show Gingrich is worth more than $6.5 million. He reported at least $500,000 in assets from Gingrich Productions, his media company that produces books and films.
Two days before the pivotal South Carolina primary, Gingrich's political and private life were clashing just as new polls showed him rising as he looks to overtake Romney in the third state to weigh in on the presidential race. Gingrich has seen his crowds grow in recent days after a strong performance in a debate Monday.
It was unclear how the new revelations from Marianne Gingrich would play in a state where religious and socially conservative voters hold sway. The interview's mere existence shines a spotlight on a part of Gingrich's past that could turn off Republican voters in a state filled with religious and cultural conservatives who may cringe at his two divorces and acknowledged marital infidelities.
Marianne Gingrich has said Gingrich proposed to her before the divorce from his first wife was final in 1981; they were married six months later. Her marriage to Gingrich ended in divorce in 2000, and Gingrich has admitted he'd already taken up with Bisek, the former congressional aide who would become his third wife. The speaker who pilloried then President Bill Clinton for his affair with Monica Lewinsky was himself having an affair at the time.
Earlier in the day, a Gingrich spokesman suggested, like Gingrich's daughters did a day earlier, that Marianne Gingrich's comments may be suspect given the emotional toll divorce takes on everyone involved.
"Divorces are very tough and people have very different recollections of how things happen," R.C. Hammond said.
Equally uncertain was whether Gingrich would get a boost from Perry's endorsement, given that the Texas governor had little support in the state, and get conservative voters to coalesce behind his candidacy. Complicating Gingrich's effort is another conservative, Rick Santorum, who threatens to siphon his support.
A CNN/Time South Carolina poll released Wednesday showed Gingrich in second place with support from 23 percent of likely primary voters, having gained 5 percentage points in the past two weeks. Romney led in the poll with 33 percent, but he had slipped some since the last survey. Santorum was third, narrowly ahead of Texas Rep. Ron Paul and well ahead of Perry.
Regardless of the South Carolina outcome, Gingrich was making plans to compete in Florida's primary on Jan. 31.
Confidence exuded from Gingrich, who rose in Iowa only to be knocked off course after sustaining $3 million in attack ads from an outside group that supports Romney. Gingrich posted dismal showings in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
By the time the race turned to South Carolina, he was back on course - and criticizing Romney as a social moderate who is timid about attacking the nation's economic troubles.
Ray Henry in Atlanta and Jack Gillum in Washington contributed to this report.