(Updates with Romney comments starting in 13th paragraph. For more campaign news, click on Elect.)
Jan. 20 (Bloomberg) -- Mitt Romney saw his rationale as the Republican presidential front-runner undercut as Newt Gingrich’s rise was threatened by allegations from an ex-wife and Rick Santorum fought them both in a debate that showcased tensions in the most turbulent day yet of the primary race.
In a single day, a succession of surprises shook the Republican contest -- first with news yesterday that Santorum rather than Romney got the most votes in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses; then with Texas Governor Rick Perry’s announcement that he was leaving the race and endorsing Gingrich; and finally with a televised interview in which Gingrich’s former wife, Marianne, said he once sought an “open marriage.”
An evening debate opened with an angry response from Gingrich to the focus on his personal life and featured testy exchanges among him, Romney and Santorum.
“I am frankly astounded that CNN would take trash like that and use it to open a presidential debate,” Gingrich, 68, a former U.S. House speaker, told the cable network’s debate moderator, John King.
Romney, a multimillionaire former private-equity executive who has said he probably pays an effective tax rate of 15 percent, continued to be dogged by questions about his wealth and why he’s refusing to release his tax returns until April -- likely after the party nomination has been clinched.
“I don’t know how many years I’ll release,” Romney said of his tax records. “I know there are some who are very anxious to see if they can’t make it more difficult for a campaign to be successful. I know the Democrats want to go after the fact that I’ve been successful. I’m not going to apologize for being successful.”
Romney, who has largely tried to direct his criticisms at President Barack Obama, used the debate to target Gingrich, a former Georgia congressman, saying he had exaggerated his role in helping former President Ronald Reagan create jobs.
“I looked at the Reagan diary,” Romney said to Gingrich. “You’re mentioned once in Ronald Reagan’s diary. And in the diary, he says you had an idea in a meeting of young congressmen, and it wasn’t a very good idea and he dismissed it.”
Santorum took aim at Gingrich for the “grandiosity” of his assertions, suggesting that voters couldn’t trust him.
“I don’t want a nominee that I have to worry about going out and looking at the paper the next day and figuring out what is he -- worrying about what he’s going to say next,” said Santorum, 53.
Taken together, the day’s events were redrawing the contours of the race. Having entered South Carolina a secure leader in the campaign who was reaching for a third consecutive victory, Romney, 64, is facing a more complicated path.
“It’s a mark of how topsy-turvy this race is,” said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican polling expert who had been advising Perry’s campaign. “We could be seeing a significant turn in momentum and in who winds up underneath the jackhammer in the next couple of days.”
Speaking on Fox News today, Romney called Gingrich “a feisty competitor.”
“We’ll have a contest that I’m sure will take us down the road a ways,” he said in an interview on “Fox and Friends.”
Romney opened his final full day of campaigning in South Carolina, touting the endorsement of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. McDonnell, who plans to join Romney at an afternoon campaign stop in Charleston, described him in a statement as a “results-oriented conservative.”
Continuing the campaign’s assault on Gingrich’s record, Romney supporters during a conference call with reporters accused Gingrich of inflating the deficit by expanding the number of locally targeted federal spending projects known as earmarks.
“Gingrich is the father of modern earmarks,” said U.S. Representative Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican.
Gingrich planned a day of campaign events in the vote-rich Charleston area, though he skipped a planned morning speech at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Charleston.
Whatever happens in South Carolina’s Jan. 21 primary, Romney still has advantages over his opponents going into Florida, where his financial superiority will give him an edge.
“If Romney wins, you’re headed into one of the most expensive states in the union,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican polling expert. “It costs a million dollars a week to run one ad in all the major markets in Florida, and Romney is the only candidate with the resources to run that kind of campaign. So it’s not over, but the fat lady’s warming up.”
Romney and Restore Our Future, an independent group that supports his candidacy, have already aired more than $4.4 million in commercials in Florida.
Still, the former Massachusetts governor and second-time presidential candidate has been challenged by an ascendant Gingrich, whose momentum may stall after fresh questions about his personal life that could hurt him with South Carolina Republicans motivated by such issues as abortion and gay marriage.
Perry, Gingrich’s newest ally, seemed to try to pre-empt the damage when he told reporters hours before the interview aired on ABC News that, “Newt is not perfect, but who among us is? 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 Christian faith.”
While Romney refrained from criticizing Gingrich on the issue, he drew an implicit contrast with the former congressman by referring to his 42-year marriage to his wife, Ann. Gingrich has been married three times.
Santorum said voters should consider the issue when choosing their candidate. “I thank God for forgiveness,” he said. “But, you know, these are issues of our lives and what we did in our lives. They are issues of character for people to consider.”
Wesley Donehue, a Columbia-based Republican strategist, said Gingrich’s ex-wife’s account is “going to hurt him in voter-rich upstate South Carolina, where social conservatism is the thing.”
Yet he said Perry’s endorsement will improve Gingrich’s chance to challenge Romney in South Carolina.
Not Over Yet
“What it means is this thing isn’t over by a long shot,” said Donehue, who advised Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann’s presidential bid before she withdrew from the race earlier this month.
Perry’s departure and his endorsement of Gingrich threatened to unite Republican base voters who have resisted Romney’s candidacy at a critical time.
“Newt is a conservative visionary who can transform our country,” Perry told reporters hours before the debate at a news conference in North Charleston.
And word that Romney wasn’t the actual winner of the Iowa caucuses blurred a sense of inevitability that many voters in South Carolina have cited as a prime reason for backing him in hopes of defeating Obama.
Santorum began the debate thanking Iowans for “a little delayed but most welcome victory,” and spent much of the event contrasting his record with those of Gingrich and Romney, whom he portrayed as having betrayed the party’s principles. He said both had backed the idea underlying Obama’s health-care law of mandating insurance coverage.
“These are two folks who don’t present the clear contrast that I do” with Obama on the issue, Santorum said. “I’ve been fighting for health reform -- private sector, bottom up, the way America works best -- for 20 years, while these two guys were playing footsies with the left.”
Gingrich again targeted Romney’s tenure at the Boston-based private equity firm Bain Capital LLC, saying that its model left companies it bought “less likely to survive” in some cases.
Romney said that four companies in which Bain invested had created 120,000 jobs, and he criticized Republicans who he said attack business.
“My view is capitalism works, free enterprise works,” Romney said.
--With assistance from Kristin Jensen in Washington and John McCormick in North Charleston, South Carolina. Editors: Jeanne Cummings, Mark McQuillan.
To contact the reporters on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in North Charleston, South Carolina at Jdavis159@bloomberg.net; Lisa Lerer in North Charleston at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at email@example.com