Fresh off the final GOP presidential debate before the nomination race begins, Mitt Romney turned his attention Friday from Iowa’s caucuses to chasing down Newt Gingrich in South Carolina, where the former House speaker holds a commanding lead in the polls.
The former Massachusetts governor started the day off with a bang, scoring a big endorsement from South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley — a 2010 tea party favorite who is scheduled to campaign with him in her state over the weekend. The Romney camp also announced it will start running its first television ad in the Palmetto State, roughly a month out from the state’s Jan. 21 primary.
The focus on South Carolina comes on the back of a new Rasmussen Reports poll that showed Mr. Romney has recaptured the lead in Iowa, feeding an emerging storyline that suggests Mr. Gingrich is on the verge of becoming the latest Republican contender to surge to the front of the pack, only to see his star fizzle out.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Herman Cain all sprinted past Mr. Romney in the polls in recent months, only to fall from the top spot under the scrutiny of news media and attacks from their GOP rivals. Texas Rep. Ron Paul, meanwhile, has consistently sat as one of the top three or four candidates in the race.
Heading into the holiday season, Mr. Romney leads in New Hampshire, home to the first-in-the-nation primary, and has been the one regular face atop the GOP leader board. From his perch, he’s trained most of his fire at President Obama, while periodically ditching his above-the-fray stance to offer some stinging attacks on the opponents who’ve leapfrogged him in the polls.
Most recently, he’s hammered Mr. Gingrich as a “unreliable conservative” and highlighted his 2008 appearance alongside then-Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a commercial advocating action on climate change and his description of a House Republican’s proposed Medicare overhaul as “right-wing social engineering.”
But in the debate Thursday in Sioux City, Iowa, Mr. Romney played nice. Others, though, in particular Mrs. Bachmann, took aim at Mr. Gingrich, questioning his pro-life credentials and the $1.6 million he earned consulting for Freddie Mac, the government sponsored housing mortgage giant that, together with Freddie Mae, have reportedly bailed out by taxpayers to the tune of about $150 billion.
The nomination battle now will largely be fought over the television and radio airwaves, as well as town hall gatherings. Political analysts say that likely benefits the deep-pocketed Mr. Romney, who has more campaign cash than Mr. Gingrich and who has spent the last few years winning over allies and building a strong ground operation in the early primary states.
“The election next November will have ramifications for generations. Neither South Carolina nor the nation can afford four more years of President Obama, and Mitt Romney is the right person to take him on and get America back on track,” Ms. Haley said in announcing her support of Mr. Romney, who she praised for not being a “creature of Washington.”
“Our country will need real leadership to undo President Obama’s failed policies, and replace them with the conservative principles Mitt Romney learned turning around businesses and a failing Olympics and successfully, conservatively governing a Democratic state,” she said.
Her comments dovetailed with the 30-second “Leader” campaign commercial that has also run in Iowa and New Hampshire where Mr. Romney casts himself as “a man of steadiness and constancy.”
“I’ve been married to the same woman for 25 — excuse me, I’ll get in trouble — for 42 years. I’ve been in the same church my entire life. I worked at one company, Bain, for 25 years,” he says in the ad. “And I left that to go off and help save the Olympic Games.
“If I’m President of the United States, I will be true to my family, to my faith, and to our country, and I will never apologize for the United States of America.”
The Democratic National Committee responded to the endorsement by highlighting the latest Winthrop University poll that showed Ms. Haley carries a lower approval rating, 34.6 percent, than President Obama, 44.8 percent, among 1,073 registered Democrats, Republicans and independents in the state.
“This is supposed to help Romney, how?” DNC communications director Brad Woodhouse said in an email blast.