CHARLESTON, S.C. — Rick Perry's withdrawal and perfectly timed endorsement of Newt Gingrich on Thursday probably will help the former House speaker pick up a percentage point or two in South Carolina's Republican primary on Saturday, political analysts predict.
The Perry endorsement, coupled with the news that the final count in Iowa showed Mitt Romney actually lost the Jan. 3 caucuses to Rick Santorum, brightened what could have been a much tougher day on the campaign trail for Mr. Gingrich, who is again facing questions about his personal history of marital infidelity.
But the Texas governor's carefully chosen words of support seemed to be aimed directly at those religious conservatives who have openly expressed concerns about the thrice-married Mr. Gingrich's divorces and self-admitted "personal mistakes."
"The fact is, there is forgiveness for those who seek God and I believe in the power of redemption, for it is a central tenet of my own Christian faith," Mr. Perry said in an endorsement in which he clearly set out to bestow, as much as is possible, the GOP's coveted Reagan mantle on Mr. Gingrich, calling him "a conservative visionary who can transform our country."
Mr. Gingrich had been successful in receiving the forgiveness of many evangelical leaders - and not so successful with others threw their support to Mr. Santorum last weekend after a meeting in Texas.
Republicans of all stripes yesterday tended to agree that the visionary label could credibly apply only to Mr. Gingrich among the four remaining GOP presidential nomination seekers.
But Mr. Gingrich already had racked up a monumental achievement - a second comeback in the same campaign that twice had been declared all but dead.
Mr. Gingrich already was leading or within a few points of Mr. Romney in polls of likely primary voters in South Carolina before Mr. Perry's endorsement.
"I think Gingrich will go on to Florida," said June Bond, a Spartanburg, S.C., GOP activist who is a Romney partisan. "If it's as close as I think, Gingrich will be able to say, 'I'm gaining momentum.' He won't get out of the race."
"I don't think it's absolutely true that Newt has to beat Romney here in South Carolina," said Alabama evangelical Randy Brinson, who flew here several hours before the Thursday debate to huddle with Mr. Gingrich. "Romney will have to win by a pretty wide margin to make the case that it's over and he's the one."
An ABC News interview with Mr. Gingrich's second wife, Marianne Gingrich, that aired Thursday night on "Nightline" included her accusation that the then-speaker of the House, already having an affair with the woman who would become his third wife, asked her to agree to an "open marriage." But even some evangelicals said the charges were 10 years old and unlikely to have a big effect on potential Gingrich voters.
"If Newt does well, he becomes the conservative alternative to Romney, and conservatives will coalesce around Newt," Mr. Brinson said. "We see Newt's numbers rising in our online poll of South Carolina evangelicals."
According to Washington Times pollster John Zogby, Mr. Gingrich will have to come within 3 or 4 percentage of the national frontrunner Mr. Romney to keep the press and most of the GOP from concluding that the Republican presidential contest is over. South Carolina Republicans have chosen the nominee, as has happened in every contested nomination since 1980.
Only a victory by Mr. Gingrich or a very close second will give his financial supporters the incentive to keep giving him enough money to keep his campaign alive for the next primary, in Florida on Jan. 31, Mr. Zogby said.
Romney supporter and former Spartanburg County GOP Chairman Rick Beltram told The Washington Times that he thinks "Perry probably had less than 4 percent of the vote in this state when he quit the race and probably two-thirds to three-fourths of those Perry votes will go to Gingrich."
"Gingrich was able to stand out as the conservative alternative to Romney in the first South Carolina debate on Monday," Mr. Zogby said. "While voters still think Romney is the best one to beat Obama, they don't seem just quite ready to give him the nomination. Something's missing from Romney."
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