Mitt Romney’s path to the Republican presidential nomination grew rougher today when Rick Perry dropped out of the party’s contest to throw his support behind Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum was certified as first-place finisher in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses.
The developments threatened to undermine Romney’s hopes of winning the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary and quickly wrapping up his party’s nomination for the White House.
Perry’s departure from the race and his endorsement of Gingrich, who is billing himself as the “consistent conservative” alternative to Romney, could unite Republican base voters who have resisted the former Massachusetts governor’s candidacy at a critical time.
“Newt is a conservative visionary who can transform our country,” Perry said at news conference in South Carolina. “Newt is not perfect, but who among us is?”
In a state where Republicans are courting Christian voters, Perry said his religion teaches forgiveness. “There is forgiveness for those who seek God,” the Texas governor said, “and I believe in the power of redemption.”
Word that Romney wasn’t the actual winner of the Iowa caucuses blurred a sense of inevitability that many voters in South Carolina have cited as a prime reason for backing him in the hopes of defeating President Barack Obama in November.
“The narrative that Governor Romney and the media have been touting of ‘inevitability’ has been destroyed,” Hogan Gidley, Santorum’s communications director, said in a statement. “Conservatives can now see and believe they don’t have to settle for Romney, the establishment’s moderate candidate.”
Santorum today won the backing of James Dobson, the founder of the Colorado Springs, Colorado-based Focus on the Family ministry. While other Republican candidates are worthy of support, “Santorum is the man of the hour,” Dobson said in a statement.
In a potential setback for Gingrich, his second wife, Marianne, said the former House speaker asked for an “open marriage” amid an affair with former House aide and current wife Callista, according to an interview to be aired on ABC News tonight.
Gingrich asked if she would share him with Callista, Marianne Gingrich said in the interview. “And I just stared at him and he said, ‘Callista doesn’t care what I do,’” she said. “He wanted an open marriage and I refused.”
In the interview with ABC’s Brian Ross to air on “Nightline,” Marianne Gingrich said her former husband lacks the moral character to be president and that his campaign positions on family values and marriage don’t line up with his personal behavior, according to excerpts released by ABC.
At a campaign event in Beaufort, South Carolina, Gingrich was asked by an attendee how voters will come to terms with what some may see as lapses in his personal judgment.
“This is a decision you have to make,” Gingrich said. “I have been very open about my life. I’ve been very open about mistakes I have made. I’ve been very open about needing to go to God for forgiveness and to seek reconciliation.”
Gingrich said polls show he is the only person who can beat Romney. “It’s very important that we not nominate a moderate,” he said. Asked about his former wife at a news conference after the event, he said, “I’m not going to say anything about Marianne.”
The morning began with news the Romney camp had been bracing for all week: the Iowa Republican Party certifying that Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, had finished the Iowa caucuses 34 votes ahead of Romney, who initially was declared the winner by eight votes. With results from eight precincts missing, the party couldn’t declare a winner.
Romney, 64, called the Iowa result a “virtual tie,” saying in a statement that Santorum had delivered a “strong performance.”
Further complicating Romney’s campaign, was the withdrawal from the race of Perry, who lagged below 10 percent in primary contest public opinion polls.
Perry has been one of several candidates, including Gingrich, Santorum and Representative Ron Paul of Texas, whose campaigns have fractured the loyalties of social conservatives in the Republican race, effectively boosting Romney because none could emerge as his prime challenger.
Wooing Perry Supporters
Gingrich, who was House speaker for four years in the 1990s, followed Perry’s endorsement by appealing to his backers.
“I ask the supporters of Governor Perry to look at my record of balancing the budget, cutting spending, reforming welfare, and enacting pro-growth policies to create millions of new jobs and humbly ask for their vote,” Gingrich said in a statement.
Ray Sullivan, a spokesman for Perry, said the governor is open to running in 2016 if Obama wins. Asked whether Perry would seek re-election in Texas, Sullivan said, “That’s certainly a strong option, as is maybe doing this again in four years.”
Romney, whose lead over Gingrich in polling has dwindled before the first Southern primary, began a concerted attack on his rival yesterday to blunt a surge that could hinder his momentum toward seizing the nomination.
Romney ridiculed Gingrich for claiming credit for jobs created while he served in Congress. He also compared the former speaker to Obama, saying Gingrich’s criticism of Romney’s business record is an attack on capitalism unbecoming of a Republican.
“Him taking credit for the jobs created in America during the Reagan years is a bit like Al Gore saying he created the Internet,” Romney said of Gingrich last night in Irmo, South Carolina.
That was a reference to Gingrich’s claim during a Jan. 16 televised Republican presidential debate that he helped create 16 million jobs as a young congressman working with then-President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and 11 million more with then-President Bill Clinton as speaker in the 1990s. Gore, Clinton’s vice president, was frequently criticized during his 2000 presidential run for having said in a 1999 interview that he “took the initiative in creating the Internet”
Pressure on Taxes
The focus on Gingrich is a departure for Romney, who has mostly refrained from targeting his rivals. The broadsides came as Romney, a multimillionaire who has made his business experience a central argument for his candidacy at a time of high unemployment, faces increasing questions about his refusal to release tax records that would explain his financial affairs.
A CNN/Time/ORC International poll conducted Jan. 13-17 showed Gingrich gaining on Romney in South Carolina before a televised debate in North Charleston tonight. It found Romney had a 10 percentage point lead over Gingrich in the state, a drop from the 19-point advantage he held over him in a survey taken less than two weeks before.
The CNN poll, released yesterday, showed Romney drawing support from 33 percent of likely voters in South Carolina’s primary, followed by Gingrich at 23 percent, Santorum at 16 percent, Paul at 13 percent and Perry at 6 percent. A similar poll Jan. 4-5 showed Romney with 37 percent, followed by Santorum at 19 percent and Gingrich at 18 percent.