On primary eve, Romney says S.C. race neck-and-neck

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NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Mitt Romney pronounced himself in a neck-and-neck race with Newt Gingrich on the eve of South Carolina’s pivotal presidential primary and pressed his chief rival Friday to release more details about his ethical problems as House speaker. Gingrich’s camp countered that Romney’s campaign was “on a panic-attack” after losing ground in recent polls.

Rick Santorum and Ron Paul argued they were still in the mix as South Carolina’s Sen. Jim DeMint declared the state a “two-man race.” Little more than a week ago, DeMint had been predicting a Romney win.

Romney’s new focus on Gingrich’s past ethics problems was a sure sign of the momentum behind the former speaker’s rise-and-fall-and-rise candidacy. But the former Massachusetts governor tried to frame a tight South Carolina race as progress in the state he’d lost soundly before.

“Frankly to be in a neck-and-neck race at this last moment is kind of exciting,” he said

Campaigning in Gilbert, Romney urged Gingrich to release a more detailed accounting of the investigation into his ethical problems, saying, “You know it’s going to get out ahead of the general election.” It was a sharp rejoinder to Gingrich’s calls for Romney to quickly release his tax records.

But Gingrich’s campaign countered that a vast amount of information from the ethics investigation had been public for more than a decade and said in a statement that Romney’s campaign was “on a panic-attack.”

Rick Perry’s departure from the race, a raucous Charleston debate on Thursday and fresh reminders of Gingrich’s tumultuous personal life promised to make the dash to Saturday’s voting frenetic and the intra-party attacks increasingly sharp.

Republican Party Chairman Reince Preibus, in an appearance on CNN, said “a little bit of drama” was good for the GOP as it sorts out the strongest challenger to Obama, and that the tone wasn’t all that negative.

Santorum, who opened his day on C-SPAN, said the GOP presidential race “has just transformed itself in the last 24 hours” and that he’s still very much a contender. The former Pennsylvania senator said he was finally drawing enough campaign contributions to compete aggressively in next-up Florida and beyond, even if he finishes poorly in South Carolina.

At an appearance in Lexington, he offered himself as a just-right “Goldilocks” candidate, positioned between Gingrich and Romney.

“One candidate is too radioactive, a little too hot,” Santorum said, referring to Gingrich. “There’s too much about that candidate that we don’t want to have” in a race that must focus on Obama’s record, he said. “And we have another candidate who is just too darn cold, who doesn’t have bold plans,” Santorum said, alluding to Romney.

Romney opened Friday with fresh endorsements from Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and three House members from Texas who lined up with him now that Perry is out of the race.

Gingrich countered with an endorsement from Michael Reagan, the son of the former president who is dear to the heart of conservatives.

A day after Gingrich’s second wife claimed that he had sought an “open marriage” with her, Gingrich’s third wife was front and center when the couple appeared at The Medical University of South Carolina Children’s Hospital. Callista Gingrich read her book, “Sweet Land of Liberty,” to six children in a hospital play area as her husband watched from the sidelines and chatted with pediatricians.

Earlier, Gingrich scrapped an appearance at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference due to what campaign aides said was poor attendance. Conference organizers blamed a scheduling conflict.

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