- Associated Press - Friday, January 20, 2012

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.

The libertarian-leaning Ron Paul, whose support has slipped with his light campaign effort here, went ahead with his address to the Southern Republican group and said Saturday’s primary could be a “significant event” that will help propel his insurgent campaign forward. He also warned voters not to back candidates who support the status quo and who won’t make deep cuts to federal spending.

Santorum, at an afternoon campaign stop, tried to dismiss Paul as a non-factor in a field that has been winnowed to four.

“There are four, three of whom have a chance to win the nomination,” he said.

DeMint, appearing on CBS’ “This Morning,” predicted that Saturday’s victor “is likely to be the next president of the United States.”

Romney seemed to agree. His campaign released a new web ad with the tagline: “On Saturday South Carolina Picks a President.” The ad included words of praise for him from South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Arizona Sen. John McCain, the party’s 2008 nominee.

Recent polls, coupled with Perry’s endorsement of Gingrich, suggested Gingrich was the candidate with the momentum and Romney the one struggling to validate his standing as front-runner.

Gingrich released his income tax records during the course of Thursday’s debate, paving the way to discussing Romney’s. The wealthy former venture capitalist has said he will release them in April, prompting Gingrich to suggest that would be too late for voters to decide if they presented evidence Obama could exploit.

“If there’s anything that’s in there that’s going to help us lose the election, we should know before the election. If there’s not, why not release it?” Gingrich said. His effective tax rate, roughly 31.6 percent of his adjusted income, was about double what Romney told reporters earlier this week he had paid.

Romney, asked about the issue Friday on Fox News Channel, said he didn’t want to give Obama and the Democrats a “nice little present of having multiple releases.” He said past GOP nominees John McCain and George W. Bush before him released their taxes at tax deadline time, and said he’d do likewise. He didn’t say how many years of returns he would release.

He shifted to offense in calling on Gingrich to release more records from his ethics investigation.

In January 1997, Gingrich became the first speaker ever reprimanded and fined for ethics violations, slapped with a $300,000 penalty. Gingrich admitted he’d failed to follow legal advice concerning the use of tax-exempt contributions to advance potentially partisan goals.

Romney’s supporters, meanwhile, went after Gingrich, arguing in a conference call with reporters that as House speaker he oversaw spending on lawmakers’ special projects. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., called Gingrich “the granddaddy of earmarks.” Rep. John Campbell, R-Calif., said Gingrich was “the guy who began the process which led to the debts and deficits that we have.”

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