Romney braced for rivals' challenge
Front-runner Mitt Romney and his Republican presidential pursuers have entered the final full day of campaigning in a South Carolina primary contest significantly changed from just 24 hours earlier.
The former Massachusetts governor is looking to fend off challenges to his fragile lead from more conservative rivals Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. The entire field, including fourth and final candidate Ron Paul, scrambled for support after Texas Governor Rick Perry quit the race and endorsed Gingrich.
Perry's departure, a raucous Thursday night debate and fresh reminders of Gingrich's tumultuous personal life, promised to make the dash to Saturday's voting frenetic and the attacks increasingly sharp as they fight for the chance to face President Barack Obama in November.
The economy is the top issue, and Obama oversees a frustrated country still trying to recover from the recession.
"I've been fighting for health reform, private sector, bottom-up ... for 20 years, while these two guys were playing footsies with the left," Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, said of Romney and Gingrich, a former House of Representatives speaker, during one debate exchange.
Romney clings to a narrow lead in South Carolina polls, with Gingrich closing in. His lead has shrunk in the race's closing days, but he remains the lukewarm leading candidate whose past stances on abortion and other social issues have failed to win the passion of the party's more conservative members.
Gingrich is fighting Santorum for that support, despite stunning new allegations from an ex-wife that he had sought an open marriage before their divorce. That reminder of his multiple marriages and affairs could hurt him, especially in evangelical South Carolina.
Santorum continues to portray himself as the party's true conservative and is trying to ride on the momentum of Thursday's surprise news that he led Romney by 34 votes in the final count of the lead-off Iowa caucuses. Romney initially had been declared the winner.
The race spun even more wildly on Thursday when Perry quit. He never really caught on in the polls after a series of mistakes in debates that left voters wondering whether he could articulate his own policies.
"Newt's not perfect, but who among us is," Perry said in backing Gingrich, as news of the allegations of Gingrich's ex-wife emerged. "The fact is, there is forgiveness for those who seek God and I believe in the power of redemption, for it is a central tenet of my own Christian faith."