, ORANGEBURG, South Carolina, Jan 21 – Newt Gingrich surged in the Republican White House race ahead of Saturday’s key South Carolina vote after lambasting the US media for digging into his past marital infidelities.
“Tomorrow’s going to be a very, very important day,” Gingrich said at a packed campaign rally in Orangeburg, adding he was hoping to “win a shockingly big victory tomorrow.”
“With your help and with the help of other good citizens across the state of South Carolina, we are going to take the first big step towards ensuring that a conservative is nominated for president of the United States.”
After a fiery debate late Thursday that saw the former House speaker spar with top rival Mitt Romney, Gingrich was seeking to capitalize on what polls show is increased momentum for his campaign.
With the vote shaping up as a nail-biter, the four remaining candidates made a last-ditch effort to win over southern conservatives as they chase their party’s nomination to go up against President Barack Obama in November.
At a campaign stop at a children’s hospital, Gingrich told AFP he felt “good” going into the hotly contested primary. When asked if he would score a victory, he said, “I hope so. We’ll see.”
Romney, whose aura of inevitability has eroded in recent days, was reportedly downplaying expectations in the Palmetto state, with one of his senior advisors saying a loss Saturday was not far-fetched.
“Do I think we could lose South Carolina? Sure,” Romney strategist Stuart Stevens told CNN. “I think it’s very competitive,” he said. “The whole race is very fluid.”
Romney, the on-and-off frontrunner, had hoped a convincing win here — after triumphing in New Hampshire and a virtual tie in Iowa — would let him wrap up the nomination.
But he has suffered a series of setbacks. Texas Governor Rick Perry dropped out of the race Thursday and endorsed Gingrich, and Iowa authorities rescinded Romney’s eight-vote victory in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus, declaring former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum the winner.
A Clemson University poll released on the eve of the primary here showed Gingrich with a six-point lead over Romney, 32 to 26 percent, with Texas congressman Ron Paul in third with 11 percent and Santorum at nine percent.
And respected Washington website Real Clear Politics’ average of recent South Carolina polling data showed Gingrich with a two percentage point lead over Romney.
Romney’s once-substantial advantage at the national level may also be shrinking, with pollsters Gallup saying Friday that Romney’s US-wide lead over Gingrich plummeted to 30-20 percent, compared with 37-14 percent a week ago.
Gingrich has risen with a series of feisty debate performances, and drew a standing ovation Thursday from the crowd with a blistering reply to a question about his marital woes.
Gingrich denied asking his second wife to tolerate his affair with Callista, now his third spouse, and called the question “as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.”
On Friday, when asked in an interview with CNN about his fiery response, he said: “I think people want a leader who’s forceful. And who knows what they think and who’s got the guts to stand there and say it.”
Shirley Maddox, 72, who worked for a congressman when Gingrich was speaker and now works part-time for an insurance firm in Orangeburg, said she was leaning towards Gingrich.
“I’ve pretty much made up my mind but it could be changed — probably Newt,” she said, acknowledging misgivings about Gingrich’s past infidelities.
Amy Dent, 40, holding six-month-old daughter Philomena, the youngest of her eight children, said she was “still shopping, between Newt and Santorum. I’ll wait until the final hours to make my final decision.”
“I put a lot of weight on a pro-life stance — and character, and I’m sort of leaning towards Santorum because of that. But I like how Newt tells it like it is,” added Dent, who described herself as “a good Catholic” — a religion she shares with Gingrich and Santorum.
Romney meanwhile has sought to deflect attacks that he built his vast fortune while firing workers, saying he expected such jibes from Obama, not fellow Republicans — traditionally the party of business.
“I know we’re going to get hit hard from President Obama, but we’re going to stuff it down his throat and point out (that) it is capitalism and freedom that makes America strong,” Romney said at the debate.