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Romney feels heat as Perry quits

Mitt Romney's march to the Republican presidential nomination has been jolted, two days ahead of the crucial South Carolina primary.

Rick Perry dropped out and endorsed a gaining Newt Gingrich, and official results showed Mr Romney did not win the Iowa caucuses after all.

Mr Romney has led 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 there is one less candidate to consider. "I know when it's time to make a strategic retreat," Mr Perry announced. The Texas governor called Mr Gingrich "a conservative visionary who can transform our country" and added, "Newt is not perfect, but who among us is?"

Mr Gingrich, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, is emerging as the main rival to Mr Romney. Polls show him in second place in South Carolina, gaining ground but still trailing the former Massachusetts governor by about 10 percentage points.

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 Mr 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 that Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, edged Mr Romney in Iowa by 34 votes, though no winner was declared because some votes remain missing.

That means that even if Mr Romney holds onto his lead and wins in South Carolina, he will not 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.

Mr Gingrich's candidacy has been boosted by strong debate performances. He had previously soared in polls, only to wither under scrutiny of his post-Congress work and his personal life, which includes three marriages and acknowledged infidelities.

Mr Gingrich issued a statement welcoming the endorsement. "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," he said.

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