- Associated Press - Saturday, January 21, 2012

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Primary day at hand, fast-climbing Newt Gingrich told South Carolinians on Saturday that he was “the only practical conservative vote” able to stop front-runner Mitt Romney in the GOP presidential race. Romney acknowledged the first-in-the-South contest “could be real close” and prepared for an extended fight by agreeing to two more debates in Florida, next on the election calendar.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum braced for a setback and looked ahead to the Jan. 31 contest after getting the most votes in Iowa and besting Gingrich in New Hampshire. Texas Rep. Ron Paul made plans to focus on states where his libertarian, Internet-driven message might find more of a reception with voters; his campaign said it had purchased a substantial ad buy in Nevada and Minnesota, which hold caucuses next month.

The first contest without Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who dropped out this past week and endorsed Gingrich, was seen as Romney’s to lose just days ago. Instead, the gap closed quickly between the Massachusetts governor who portrays himself as the Republicans best positioned to defeat President Barack Obama and Gingrich, the confrontational former House speaker from Georgia.

Romney avoided a run-in with Gingrich at Tommy’s Country Ham House, where both had scheduled campaign events for the same time. Romney stopped by the breakfast restaurant 45 minutes ahead of schedule. When Gingrich arrived, just minutes after Romney’s bus left the parking lot, he said: “Where’s Mitt?”

Earlier, Gingrich had a message for voters during a stop at The Grapevine restaurant in Boiling Springs not long after the polls opened: Come out and vote for me if you want to help deny Romney nomination.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (left) makes a point as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich listens during the Republican presidential candidate debate at the North Charleston Coliseum in Charleston, S.C., on Thursday. (Associated Press)
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (left) makes a point as former House ... more >

He told diners who were enjoying plates of eggs and grits that he was the “the only practical conservative vote” to the rival he called a Massachusetts moderate. “Polls are good, votes are better,” he said.

Gingrich also said he would put a stop to federal actions against South Carolina’s voter ID and immigration laws.

Romney’s agreement to participate in Florida debates Monday in Tampa and Thursday in Jacksonville was seen as an acknowledgement of a prolonged battle with Gingrich.

“This could be real close,” said Romney as he chatted on the phone with a voter Saturday morning and urged the man to go vote.

Romney still has significant advantages over his three remaining Republican rivals, including an enormous financial edge and a well-organized campaign.

He suffered a symbolic blow when the Iowa Republican Party, without explanation late Friday, declared Santorum as winner of the Jan. 3 caucus, days after saying incomplete vote results precluded it from doing just that. Santorum was 34 votes ahead of Romney, but because eight precincts never turned in certified results, the state chairman had said on Thursday the party could not declare a winner. About two weeks earlier, Romney was said to have won by eight votes.

With his Iowa victory now rescinded, losing in South Carolina would be a setback that could draw the primary contest out much longer. Just 10 days ago, Romney’s campaign team was looking ahead to the general election as it anticipated a quick sweep in early primaries.

By Saturday, state Treasurer Curtis Loftis, a top Romney backer, was on an automated telephone message attacking Gingrich’s ethics record in Congress, while Romney’s wife, Ann, was on a separate one urging voters to consider the candidates character.

“Look at how they’ve lived their life,” she says. “And that’s why I think it’s so important to understand the character of a person.”

Before the ham house standoff that wasn’t, Romney stood outside his Greenville headquarters and undertook a new attack on Gingrich. He called on Gingrich to further explain his contracts with Freddie Mac, the housing giant, and release any advice he had provided to the company. He has said the contracts earned two of his companies more than $1.6 million over eight years, but that he only pocketed about $35,000 a year himself.

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