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.
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.
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.
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.
A CNN/Time South Carolina poll released Wednesday showed Mr. Gingrich in second place with support from 23 percent of likely primary voters, having gained 5 percentage points in the past two weeks. Mr. Romney led in the poll with 33 percent, but he had slipped some since the last survey. Mr. Santorum was in third place, narrowly ahead of Texas Rep. Ron Paul and well ahead of Mr. Perry.
Regardless of the South Carolina outcome, Mr. Gingrich was making plans to continue to Florida, which holds its primary Jan. 31.
“There is one candidate who can give you a conservative nominee, and only one candidate who can stop Mitt Romney,” Mr. Gingrich told an overflow crowd of about 400 at Mutt’s BBQ in Easley on Wednesday. “A vote for anyone else is a vote that allows Mitt Romney to potentially be our nominee.”
Confidence exudes from Mr. Gingrich, who rose in Iowa only to be knocked off course after sustaining $3 million in attack ads in Iowa from an outside group that supports Mr. Romney. Mr. Gingrich posted dismal showings in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
By the time the race turned to South Carolina, he was sharply criticizing Mr. Romney as a social moderate who is timid about attacking the nation’s economic troubles. He also raised questions about Mr. Romney’s experience as a venture capitalist, while a super PAC that supports Mr. Gingrich aggressively attacked Mr. Romney as a vicious corporate raider. And Mr. Gingrich ripped Mr. Romney for standing by as a super PAC run by former top Romney political aides continued to attack him in South Carolina.
Mr. Romney ended up on the defensive and by Monday night’s debate, Mr. Gingrich was back in command. He earned a standing ovation when he labeled Democratic President Obama “the best food stamp president in American history.” The clip became the centerpiece of a television ad that began airing Wednesday as Mr. Gingrich worked to cast himself as the Republican with the best chance of beating Mr. Obama in the fall — stealing a page from Mr. Romney’s playbook.
Said Gingrich senior adviser David Winston, “His taking on Barack Obama showed a toughness and an electability that the electorate is looking for.”
Thomas Beaumont reported from Columbia, S.C.