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Gingrich fury over ex-wife's claims

The race for the Republican presidential nomination took several twists and turns as Rick Perry dropped out, Newt Gingrich faced stunning allegations from his ex-wife and Mitt Romney struggled to maintain a shaky front-runner's standing.

An aggressive evening debate in North Charleston, in the critical state of South Carolina, site of the next primary vote, capped the bewildering day.

Recent polls, coupled with Mr Perry's endorsement, suggested Mr Gingrich was the candidate with the momentum and Mr 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 Mr Romney's principal conservative alternative.

Former senator Rick Santorum played aggressor for much of the night, struggling to inject himself into what seemed increasingly like a two-way race with less than 48 hours remaining until the South Carolina polls open. He accused the surging Mr Gingrich and front-runner Mr Romney of agreeing with the left when it came to healthcare. Both men rejected the allegations.

The debate began a few hours after first word that Mr Romney's narrow Iowa caucus victory was actually a narrow loss, then had been stung by Mr Perry's endorsement of Mr Gingrich.

Mr 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 Mr Perry, abruptly quitting the race just before the first-in-the-South primary.

His decision to end a once-promising candidacy left Mr Romney, Mr Gingrich, Mr Santorum and Texas Representative Ron Paul the remaining contenders in the race to pick a Republican to challenge Democratic president Barack Obama in November.

Hours after Mr Perry exited one stage, the four remaining contenders walked on to another for a final pre-primary debate. Mr Gingrich angrily condemned the news media for putting his ex-wife front and centre just before South Carolina votes, but his rivals steered well clear of the controversy.

All four remaining Republican candidates lustily attacked Mr Obama, while Mr Santorum in particular sought to raise his own profile.

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