Crunch time arrived in South Carolina with more grim news for Mitt Romney, whose nationwide lead is “collapsing” against a surging Newt Gingrich in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, according to new Gallup polling data.
The former Massachusetts governor played down expectations as South Carolinians readied to vote in Saturday’s crucial primary, acknowledging that what was seen as an easy win barely a week ago now may slip through his fingers.
The broader U.S. picture, meanwhile, suggests the traction former House speaker Gingrich gained in two feisty debate performances this week is beginning to translate coast to coast.
Romney’s lead over Gingrich shrank nationally from 23 percentage points to 10 points in the past five days, prompting Gallup editor-in-chief Frank Newport to predict the gap would narrow further still.
“Clearly, things are collapsing,” Newport told MSNBC.
However, “voter volatility” remain the watchwords in a wildly unpredictable primary season that has anointed and discarded a succession of Republican hopefuls.
Campaigning in the rain Friday, Romney described the South Carolina race as “neck and neck” and shrugged off the significance of losing here. But his remarks hinted that the tightening race may extend far into the spring before it is settled.
“From the very beginning, South Carolina is an uphill battle for a guy from Massachusetts,” Romney told reporters.
“We have a long process ahead of us — 1,150 delegates to get. I sure would like to win South Carolina, but I know that if those polls were right, regardless of who gets the final number, we’re both going to get a lot of delegates.”
Gingrich was uncharacteristically low-key on the campaign trail Friday, attending a tour of a Charleston children’s hospital with his wife Callista at his side.
The appearance provided a counterpunch of sorts to the fireworks of the night before, when Gingrich went ballistic at the top of a nationally televised debate when questioned on ex-wife Marianne’s unflattering details of his infidelity.
One overnight tracking poll released Friday showed barely 30 per cent of predominantly conservative, evangelical South Carolinians considered the marital accusations believable — good news for Gingrich if such attitudes translate into votes on Saturday.
Gingrich’s unlikely comeback appears to have galvanized the Republican Party’s conservative base as it looks to South Carolina as a firewall to halt — or at least delay — Romney’s path to the nomination.
Both men continue to pick up high-profile endorsements with each passing day. For Romney, Friday’s catch was Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who called Romney a “results-oriented conservative” best positioned to appeal to Democrats and independents in a general election against President Barack Obama.
Gingrich, for his part, welcomed the endorsement of action-movie hero Chuck Norris, who called Gingrich “the best man left on the battlefield who is able to outwit, outplay and outlast” Obama. Gingrich responded on Twitter, writing that Norris “will make an excellent Secretary of Attack.”
The sheer unpredictability of the race also suggests Romney could rebound by the time results are disclosed Saturday night, said Gallup’s Newport.
“We have seen more movement, more roller-coaster kind of effect this year than any other Republican primary in our history of tracking,” he said. “I think anything is possible. It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility if Romney recovers. We’ll wait and see.”Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich is gaining ground in the polls ahead of Saturday's Republican primary in South Carolina.