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Bad news for Mitt Romney: Rick Perry drops out, and Rick Santorum won Iowa

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Mitt Romney's aura of inevitability took a hit Thursday, just as the biggest threat to his campaign, Newt Gingrich, suddenly faced unwelcome questions about once asking his ex-wife for permission to have an "open marriage."

To call Thursday the most turbulent day of an already volatile presidential primary would be an understatement. South Carolina suddenly is a neck-and-neck race between the two. And, as a result, Florida's Jan. 31 primary looks like less of a cakewalk for Romney.

The morning began with Texas Gov. Rick Perry ending his struggling campaign and endorsing Gingrich. About the same time, Iowa certified results from its Jan. 3 caucuses, showing that — contrary to early reports about Romney barely winning — Rick Santorum finished with 34 more votes.

But Gingrich's ability to capitalize on the one-two blow to Romney was buried by a sensational ABC News interview with Gingrich's second wife, Marianne, who said he wanted an "open marriage" so he could continue an affair with his aide at the time, who eventually became his third wife, Callista.

Gingrich turned the weakness into a strength Thursday night at the CNN debate here when moderator John King tried to ask Gingrich about it.

"This story is false" Gingrich said. "I am frankly astounded that CNN would take trash like that and use it to open a presidential debate."

Gingrich got a standing ovation and calls of "Newt!" for bashing the "destructive, vicious, negative nature" of the news media.

"I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans," he said. After Gingrich scolded CNN's King, the other candidates refused to touch the issue.

But Gingrich has made family values a part of his campaign. And just as he questions Romney's business background, he'll face questions about his past.

The ABC News report won't go away, and supporters of his Republican opponents will likely play up Marianne Gingrich's comments.

"He wanted an open marriage and I refused," she told ABC News and the Washington Post.

Gingrich and Romney are essentially tied, according to an average of five South Carolina polls released Wednesday and Thursday.

Romney, the frontrunner, was already waning before Thursday. Romney was 2-0 heading into South Carolina. But the recounted Iowa ballots put him at 1-1.

Technically, there was no official winner of the Iowa caucuses because the party said it had not received results from eight of the state's 1,774 precincts. Local party officials were supposed to submit forms by Wednesday summarizing the precincts' total, but some never turned up by the deadline for certifying the election.

That makes Saturday's primary winner crucial — especially in Florida, where the electorate is driven in large part by a television ad war.

"It's the narrative that matters. The winner in South Carolina matters," said David "DJ" Johnson, a former Republican Party of Florida executive director and Florida adviser to Jon Huntsman's now-scuttled campaign.

"Debates matter, too," Johnson said. "But it's unclear how the Marianne story will play out."

Also, it's unclear how much Perry will support Gingrich and whether his support really means much. Perry garnered only 6 percent of the vote in a CNN poll. His campaign appearances in South Carolina have been characterized by small, unenthusiastic crowds and he was barely registering in recent Florida polls.

Still, Perry's withdrawal narrows a field where the conservative vote had been splintered. Now those conservative voters, assuming they don't suddenly back Romney, will have to decide between Santorum, Gingrich and Ron Paul, whose base appears to rest with younger and independent voters.

"The conservative part of the base is still split with Paul, Gingrich and Santorum. As long as the three of them are in play, it's still Romney against the field,'' said Republican media consultant Adam Goodman of Tampa, a former Herman Cain adviser now backing Romney.

A.K. Desai, a St. Petersburg insurance executive and top Florida fundraiser for Perry, said Thursday that he was leaning toward joining Romney's campaign team, citing the frontrunner's consistently strong performance in debates and overall primary contest.

Perry entered the race in August with big hopes and widespread support among Republican activists skeptical about Romney. But the Texas governor never recovered from weak debate performances early on. Few observers expected his campaign to survive beyond South Carolina.

"South Carolina will be decisive," predicted Desai. "If Gov. Romney wins South Carolina, he is going to be the nominee because he's heavily favored in Florida."

But the South Carolina winner isn't guaranteed a victory in Florida, which has nearly as many party-nominating delegates and Electoral College votes as the other three early-voting states combined.

Republicans have already cast more than 138,000 absentee mail-in ballots in Florida. Another 5,000 have early voted at the polls in some Florida counties, including Republican-rich Hillsborough. And Romney has been running a full-bore campaign targeting early voters by mail while spending an estimated $2.5 million on television commercials in Florida.

Gingrich has begun advertising in Florida — but on radio. He has sent Republican voters two mail pieces at most. Romney has sent at least four to some voters.

Still, with Romney making such a strong push and him doing so well for so long, it's likely that he's leading among the ballots already cast.

Contact Marc Caputo at mcaputo@miamiherald.com and Adam C. Smith at asmith@tampabay.com

Bad news for Mitt Romney: Rick Perry drops out, and Rick Santorum won Iowa 01/19/12 [Last modified: Thursday, January 19, 2012 10:13pm]
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