Jan 28, 2012 at 3:15 pm
CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) - Mitt Romney's march to the Republican presidential nomination was jolted Thursday, two days ahead of the crucial South Carolina primary, with Rick Perry dropping out and endorsing a gaining Newt Gingrich and new results showing Romney apparently didn't win the Iowa caucuses after all.
Romney has been the front-runner in the contest to select a challenger to President Barack Obama in November, benefiting from a fractured Republican field and the failure of conservatives to rally behind a candidate.
Now Republicans have one less candidate to consider.
''I know when it's time to make a strategic retreat,'' Perry announced Thursday. The Texas governor called Gingrich "a conservative visionary who can transform our country" and added, "Newt is not perfect, but who among us is?"
Perry's withdrawal and endorsement of Gingrich is a further sign that the former speaker of the House of Representatives is emerging as the main rival to Romney, who has failed to persuade many Republicans of his conservative credentials.
Saturday's South Carolina primary has been seen as the pivotal contest in the race, following what had initially been declared a narrow victory for Romney in Iowa, the first nominating contest, and a solid Romney win in last week's New Hampshire primary.
Since 1980, no Republican has won the presidential nomination without a victory in the state.
But Republican officials said Thursday that Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, edged the former Massachusetts governor in Iowa by 34 votes, though no winner was declared because some votes remain missing.
That means that even if Romney holds onto his lead and wins in South Carolina, he won't be able to claim victory in the first three contests -- an achievement that would have made him appear to be the all-but-inevitable nominee.
Gingrich's candidacy has been boosted by strong debate performances, with another debate scheduled for Thursday. Polls show Gingrich in second place in South Carolina, gaining ground on Romney but still trailing by about 10 percentage points.
Gingrich had previously soared in polls, only to wither under scrutiny of his post-Congress work and his personal life, which included three marriages and acknowledged infidelities.
He is likely to receive more unflattering attention later Thursday when ABC News airs an interview with his second wife, Marianne Gingrich. In the interview, Marianne Gingrich says Gingrich asked her for an "open marriage" in which he could have both a wife and a mistress, and she refused to agree.
The interview could hurt Gingrich in South Carolina, where religious and cultural conservatives are a big part of the Republican base.
Santorum continues to vie with Gingrich for the support of conservatives, including those who had backed Perry.
A fourth candidate, congressman Ron Paul, draws support from a loyal core of followers drawn to his libertarian, small-government message, but his calls for defense cuts and views on other issues put him at odds with many Republicans.
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. Santorum was in third place, narrowly ahead of Paul.
Perry was at the bottom. He was briefly seen as the front-runner after entering the race in August, but was hobbled by poor debate performances.