CHARLESTON, S.C. — On the eve of a Southern showdown, Mitt Romney conceded Friday he’s in a tight race with Newt Gingrich for Saturday’s South Carolina primary in a Republican campaign suddenly turned turbulent.
It’s “neck and neck,” Romney declared, then said later in the day that he expects he will win some states while Gingrich takes others.
A victory by Romney would place him in a commanding position heading into the Florida primary Jan. 31.
He and an organization supporting him are already airing television ads in that state.
If Romney stumbles in South Carolina – as senior aides concede he might – it could portend a long battle for the nomination.
Romney sounded anything but confident as he told reporters that in South Carolina, “I realize that I had a lot of ground to make up … and frankly to be in a neck-and-neck race at this last moment is kind of exciting.”
Romney demanded Gingrich release hundreds of supporting documents relating to an ethics investigation into his activities while he was House speaker in the mid-1990s.
“Of course he should,” Romney told reporters. Referring to the House Democratic leader, he said, “Nancy Pelosi has the full record of that ethics investigation. You know it’s going to get out ahead of the general election.”
Gingrich’s campaign, which has demanded Romney release his income tax returns before the primary, called Romney’s demand a “panic attack.”
“Don’t you love these guys?” Gingrich said in Orangeburg. “He doesn’t release anything. He doesn’t answer anything, and he’s even confused about whether he will ever release anything.”
Former Sen. Rick Santorum campaigned as the Goldilocks candidate – just right for the state’s conservative voters.
“One candidate is too radioactive, a little too hot,” he said, referring to Gingrich. “And we have another candidate who is just too darn cold, who doesn’t have bold plans,” he added, speaking of Romney.
His campaign also announced endorsements from conservative leaders in the upcounty portion of the state around Greenville, where the heaviest concentration of evangelical voters lives.
Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, dismissed Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the fourth contender in the race. “There are four, three of whom have a chance to win the nomination,” he said, including himself.
Paul, who finished third in the Iowa caucuses and second in the New Hampshire primary, has had a limited presence in South Carolina.
But he flew to six cities on a burst of campaigning on the race’s final day, and drew applause for having returned to Washington, D.C., earlier in the week to vote against Obama’s requested increase in the debt limit.
“When you hear the word principle, you think of Ron Paul. He’s the embodiment of that,” said Derek Smith, a 26-year-old engineer for the Navy in Charleston. “If he were to run as a third-party candidate, I would vote for him unconditionally.”
Paul has said he has no intention of doing that.
Interviewed on C-SPAN, Santorum said the race “has just transformed itself in the last 24 hours.” It was hard for any of the campaigns to argue with that.
In a bewildering series of events on Thursday, Romney was stripped of his victory in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses by state party officials, who said a recount showed Santorum ahead by 34 votes.
Then came an unexpected withdrawal by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who endorsed Gingrich. But Gingrich was suddenly caught in a controversy caused by his ex-wife’s accusations.
At a two-hour debate that capped the day, Gingrich drew applause when he strongly attacked ABC and the “liberal news media” in general for injecting the issue into the final days of the South Carolina campaign.
By contrast, Romney faced a round of boos from the audience when he stuck by earlier statements that he would wait until April to release his tax returns.
Romney has stumbled several times in recent days, including once when he said he paid an effective tax rate of about 15 percent. That’s half what many middle-income Americans pay, but it’s what the law stipulates because his income derives from investments, which are taxed at a lower rate than wages.
Gingrich posted his own tax returns online during the Thursday debate, reporting he paid 31.5 percent of his income to the IRS.