- Associated Press - Thursday, January 19, 2012

EASLEY, S.C. (AP) — Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Thursday he’s still the best conservative alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for the Republican presidential nomination, brushing aside new Iowa vote results showing former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum ahead of Mr. Romney in the state’s GOP caucuses.

“If you look at your own poll, I’m clearly now within 5 points of beating Romney” in South Carolina,” Mr. Gingrich told NBC’s “Today” show in an early-morning interview from South Carolina.

Republican officials in Iowa, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk ahead of an official announcement later Thursday, said the final count gives Mr. Santorum 34 more votes than Mr. Romney. But no winner will be declared because votes from eight precincts are missing.

Mr. Romney, the front-runner in the race for the GOP presidential nomination, initially had been considered the winner by 8 votes in the event’s closest finish ever.

In Thursday’s interview, Mr. Gingrich called Mr. Santorum “a fine person” but said he’s running well behind in South Carolina, where the Republican hopefuls will meet in a debate later Thursday and voters go to the polls Saturday.

On another issue, Mr. Gingrich declined to talk in detail about any damage to his campaign that might come from an interview that ABC News scheduled on its late-night program “Nightline” with his ex-wife, Marianne Gingrich.

“I’m not going to say anything bad about Marianne,” Mr. Gingrich said. He did say that members of his family had written to ABC to complain about the broadcast, saying he thought it was wrong for the network to be “intruding into family things that are more than a decade old.”

Asked if he thought his ex-wife could say things that would harm his prospects, Mr. Gingrich said his daughters are “credible” character witnesses.

Mr. Gingrich has been on an upswing in recent days, drawing big, enthusiastic crowds and fending off new attacks from Mr. Romney while reveling in a strong debate performance and a nod from tea party favorite Sarah Palin, a former Alaska governor and the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate.

But it’s unclear whether his latest burst of momentum, reflected in both internal and public polling, will be enough for him to overtake Mr. Romney. Complicating his effort are two other conservatives — Mr. Santorum and Texas Gov. Rick Perry — who threaten to siphon his support.

ABC News has not indicated what Mr. Gingrich‘s ex-wife said in the interview, but the network planned to release excerpts ahead of Thursday night’s GOP debate and “Nightline” broadcast.

The mere existence of the interview shines a spotlight on a part of Mr. Gingrich’s past that could turn off Republican voters in a state filled with religious and cultural conservatives who may cringe at his two divorces and acknowledged infidelities.

Ms. Gingrich has said Mr. Gingrich proposed to her before the divorce from his first wife was final in 1981; they were married six months later. Her marriage to Mr. Gingrich ended in divorce in 2000, and Gingrich has admitted he’d already taken up with Callista Bisek, a former congressional aide who would become his third wife. The speaker who pilloried President Bill Clinton for his affair with Monica Lewinsky was himself having an affair at the time.

Underscoring the potential threat to his rise, Mr. Gingrich‘s campaign released a statement from his two daughters from his first marriage — Kathy Lubbers and Jackie Cushman — suggesting that Ms. Gingrich’s comments may be suspect given the emotional toll divorce takes on everyone involved.

“Anyone who has had that experience understands it is a personal tragedy filled with regrets and sometimes differing memories of events,” their statement said.

Story Continues →