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Campaign 2012: Will Romney feel the pressure tonight?

January 19, 2012 |  4:44 pm

GOP debate stage in Charleston
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is probably feeling pretty good about his chances going into Thursday night's GOP presidential debate in Charleston, S.C.. His poll numbers have started to rebound -- especially in South Carolina -- as front-runner Mitt Romney's have started to soften. The withdrawal of Texas Gov. Rick Perry leaves one less person competing for the anti-Mitt mantle -- and for the microphone at tonight's debate. (It's just icing on the cake that Perry endorsed Gingrich on his way out the door; the governor doesn't have a large enough following for his endorsement to tip the race.) And political junkies are still buzzing about Gingrich's rousing performance at Tuesday night's debate in Myrtle Beach.

The trends give Gingrich a couple of options tonight as he tries to vault into the lead. He could aim his withering tongue at Romney, continuing his criticisms of Romney's creatively destructive work in private equity and his record as governor of Massachusetts. Or he could try to siphon off supporters from Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), the other two candidates still standing. Santorum has slumped since the New Hampshire primary, and while Paul finished a solid second there, he's been stuck in the low teens in national polls.

Just days ago, Romney seemed poised to wrap up the nomination in South Carolina. He'd built a double-digit lead in a state where religious conservatives are a powerful voting block -- not Romney's strong suit. If he were to win handily in South Carolina after notching an easy victory in New Hampshire and a virtual tie for first in Iowa, it would be hard for any rival to raise the money and organizational support needed to overtake him.

The odds of that kind of conclusive victory seem slim now, given the shift in momentum. But this race has been anything but predictable, and the pre-debate development Thursday make the crystal ball even cloudier.

Although Perry's campaign was struggling, it still came as a surprise when he pulled the plug Thursday morning. Evidently the thought of yet another torturous debate was too much to take. Then Republican officials in Iowa released a new count from their caucuses, showing Santorum with more votes than Romney. (They couldn't declare Santorum the victor, however, because votes totals from eight precincts were MIA.) Meanwhile, ABC News released excerpts from an interview with Gingrich's previous wife, Marianne, who said he'd asked her to agree to an open marriage while he was having an affair with the woman who became his current (third) wife.

Look for one of the other candidates to find a clever way to tee up the "open marriage" issue if the panel's moderators don't ask about it. That might be good for a chuckle, but it would be better for the candidates to talk about the handful of substantive issues on which they disagree.

For example, Romney has taken a hard line on illegal immigrants, while Gingrich has advocated a "let's be humane" approach toward those who are already settled here. On the deficit, Paul has called for balancing the budget immediately by slashing spending radically, while his rivals favor a more gradual approach. And on taxes, Gingrich has called for an optional flat tax of 15% -- coincidentally, a rough equivalent of the percentage that Romney says he pays -- while Romney favors a go-slow approach to reform that largely keeps the status quo in place in the near term.

One thing's for sure: with only four candidates on stage, each one will have plenty of time in the spotlight.

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--Jon Healey

Credit: EPA / Erik S. Lesser

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