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Gingrich, Romney ’Neck and Neck’ in South Carolina

Striving to regain ground in the final hours before the South Carolina Republican presidential primary, Mitt Romney raised questions about rival Newt Gingrich’s business dealings as the former House speaker aimed for an upset victory that could prolong the nominating race.

“I’d like to see what he actually told Freddie Mac (FMCC),” Romney told reporters gathered outside his campaign headquarters in Greenville. “Let’s see what his report was.”

Gingrich, who might win or pull even with Romney in today’s voting, has faced questions from his Republican presidential rivals about his business dealings and consulting work for Freddie Mac, the government-backed home mortgage company, after he left Congress. Freddie Mac and its sister company, Fannie Mae, have received about $153 billion in taxpayer aid since losses from risky mortgages caused them to be brought under U.S. conservatorship in September 2008.

Romney’s campaign is saying the former Massachusetts governor may lose the state, leaving him with just one early state victory heading into the Jan. 31 Florida primary. Traveling the state yesterday, Romney sought to downplay expectations, describing the race as a “neck-and-neck” competition.

“I said from the very beginning South Carolina is an uphill battle for a guy from Massachusetts,” he told reporters in Gilbert, South Carolina. “We’re battling hard.”

The winner of the South Carolina primary has gone on to win the Republican nomination since 1980.

Slipping Support

A poll released yesterday, conducted by Clemson University, put Gingrich ahead of Romney, 32 percent to 26 percent. Trailing are U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas at 11 percent and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum at 9 percent, with 20 percent undecided. The survey of 429 Republicans who said they intend to vote today was conducted from Jan. 18 to yesterday and has an error margin of plus-or-minus 4.7 percentage points.

During the first week in January, Romney had an 18-point lead in a South Carolina poll. Now, he and his advisers may face a drawn-out nomination fight extending into the spring.

Both candidates were scheduled to appear at the same time at the same barbecue restaurant in Greenville. Romney arrived at Tommy’s Country Ham House 45 minutes early and had left by the time Gingrich arrived at the Greenville restaurant.

“Where’s Mitt?” Gingrich said. “I thought he was going to stay and maybe we’d have a little debate.”

Massachusetts Moderate’

Gingrich appealed to diners to remember that “I am the only conservative who has the opportunity to stop a Massachusetts moderate.”

Today, Romney told reporters that he would attend the next Republican debate scheduled for Jan. 23 in Tampa, Florida, a sign that his campaign anticipates a longer struggle for the nomination.

Romney supporters argue that quickly claiming the nomination would allow the party more time to prepare for the campaign against Democratic President Barack Obama.

“I want to end it in South Carolina because I’m watching the Democrats raise money by the day,” South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, a Romney backer, said in Greenville this morning. “It is good for all Republicans and conservatives to end this in South Carolina.”

Romney’s efforts to lock up the nomination were dealt another blow late last night, when Republican Party leaders in Iowa officially declared Santorum the winner of the Jan. 3 caucuses.

Iowa party officials had named Romney the winner in the early morning hours on Jan. 4 because he was ahead of Santorum by eight votes in its initial tabulation.

Nominating History

The changing vote total means that Romney can no longer claim to have made history by becoming the first Republican non- incumbent to win both the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary since the caucuses became the start of the presidential nominating process in 1976.

Seeking to regain ground, Romney and his backers have attempted to focus attention on Gingrich, raising questions about his record in Congress.

Yesterday, Romney called on Gingrich to release details of a 1997 congressional investigation into ethics charges when he was House speaker. The investigation resulted in Gingrich being reprimanded by fellow lawmakers and charged with a $300,000 fine in chamber-reimbursement costs.

Gingrich scoffed at the demand, referring to what he said is a 900-page cache of information publicly available on the matter and Romney’s refusal to immediately release his tax returns.

Disclosure Demands

“Give me a break,” Gingrich told reporters after the town hall in Orangeburg. “I refuse to take seriously any request from the Romney campaign to disclose anything, because they’re clearly not going to disclose anything at any level that involves him.”

Romney, a multimillionaire from his days as a private- equity executive, has been trailed by questions during the South Carolina campaign about why he’s refusing to provide any tax returns until April -- when his party’s nomination contestmay effectively be over.

On Jan. 17, Romney said his effective tax rate is “probably” close to 15 percent because much of his income comes from investments.

Romney supporters worked to discount the tax issue, arguing that voters were more focused on jobs and the economy.

To contact the reporters on this story: Lisa Lerer in Washington at llerer@bloomberg.net; Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington at jdavis159@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net

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