GOP 2012: Four Big Things That Changed Today

McKay Coppins and Zeke Miller report from South Carolina that this is getting fun.

NORTH CHARLESTON, South Carolina—It was supposed to be a coronation. Now it’s a dogfight. The past 48 hours have seen the GOP race for the White House scrambled, with just four candidates headed into a debate tonight and a primary on Saturday that has muddied Mitt Romney’s path to the nomination.

1. Perry Bows Out

PAUL J. RICHARDS / Getty Images

The Texas Governor, who has been polling in the mid-single digits here and across the country, acknowledged the obvious — he couldn’t win the nomination. His endorsement of Gingrich was partly a factor of their shared hatred of front-runner Mitt Romney.

“I know we can’t lose track of the ultimate objective in carrying out our mission, and that objective is not only to defeat President Obama, but to replace him with a conservative leader who will bring about real change,” Perry said in a not-so-subtle dig at Romney’s record as a moderate.

Gingrich is closing to within single digits of Romney in recent polls, well below the gap of 18 percentage points in late December. Gingrich “humbly” asked Perry’s supporters to join his campaign in a statement today, though Perry voters appear likely to split between him and Romney, with 38 percent saying they’d select Gingrich as their second choice, and 35 percent listing Romney second in a POLITICO poll released this morning. http://images.politico.com/global/2012/01/120118_sc.html

With Perry out of the way, Gingrich is hoping to cast himself as the principal conservative alternative to the so-called “Massachusetts moderate.”

2. Ex To Unload On Gingrich

ERIC THAYER / Reuters

Of course, the Newtmentum may be short-lived, depending on how forgiving conservative South Carolina women feel about an allegedly proposed open marriage.

As Drudge reported last night, ABC News will air an interview with the candidate’s ex-wife that threatens to prompt widespread revolt within the Palmetto State’s family values crowd.

Judging by the bits of the interview that are already available, it doesn’t look pretty for the former Speaker.

“She said she used to call her at night [when he was giving] a speech somewhere, and tell her how much he loved her,” correspondent Brian Ross said on The View this morning, previewing his exclusive. “And later, [he] admitted he was in bed next to Callista when he made the phone call.”

Additionally, in a 30-second clip released by the network, Marianne claims Gingrich demanded that she had to “share” him with Callista. “He was asking to have an open marriage, and I refused,” she said.

So far, when questions have arisen about Gingrich’s checkered marital history, the candidate has focused on themes of repentance, redemption, and conversion. (He has since married Callista, and converted to Catholicism.) And Republican voters have been quick to forgive him.

Perry, while endorsing Gingrich, sounded a similar tone Thursday, insisting, “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.”

But the experience of actually hearing all the dirty details of an affair, as related by a jilted ex-spouse, can bring out a Pharisaical streak in even the most forgiving Christian.

3. Tax Returns Put Romney On Defense

EMMANUEL DUNAND / Getty Images

Romney has been hinting vaguely for nearly 20 years that he’ll release his tax returns some time if he needs to. That time may have come. He’s facing increased pressure this week to release the returns, with the audience at Monday night’s debate cheering loudly when Perry called on the ex-CEO to be transparent with the American people.

And the potential game-changer took place Tuesday, when Romney—in an apparently spontaneous move that was not discussed with campaign advisers—told reporters his effective tax rate was around 15 percent.

Democrats and Republican rivals alike have spent the past 48 hours shouting that number from the rooftops, breathlessly pointing out that the average middle class family pays a substantially higher portion than the multi-millionaire. (Most of Romney’s income comes from investments, to which the much lower capital gains tax is applied.)

To pile on suspicion surrounding the candidate’s financial affairs, ABC News reported that Romney has parked millions of dollars in the Cayman Islands, a well-known tax haven, and that while working at Bain, he donated thousands of shares of valuable stock to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Even some of Romney’s supporters are now grumbling that the candidate has mishandled the tax issue; he should have released his returns months ago, rather than allowing details to slowly trickle out into public. And while the campaign insists he has done nothing wrong or illegal, the mere idea of shady financial dealings reinforces critics’ portrait of him as a greedy one-percenter. For one of the first times this election, the Romney campaign has lost control of the message—and they’ll be fighting to get it back as they head into primary day.

4. Rick Santorum Wins Iowa!

Santorum and his wife Karen arrive to campaign at the “Rock the Caucus” Rally at Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa, January 3, 2012. JOHN GRESS / Reuters

The news would have been sweeter two weeks ago, but he’ll take it today: A recount of Iowa caucus votes finds that Santorum finished ahead of Mitt Romney, who claimed victory after leading in earlier counts.

The State Republican Party is refusing to certify a winner, calling the results a tie; but Santorum’s not being so shy: His campaign blasted out a statement headed “SANTORUM WINS IOWA!”

And communications director Hogan Gidley noted that the results are as much a blow to Romney as a boost to his boss.

“The narrative that Governor Romney and the media have been touting of ‘inevitability’ has been destroyed,” Gidley said. “Conservatives can now see and believe they don’t have to settle for Romney, the Establishment’s moderate candidate.”

A week ago, it seemed likely that Romney would enjoy an unprecedented sweep of the early states; now it seems that he could lose two of the three — and lose them in the space of just three days. He called Santorum to concede Iowa Thursday, Gidley said.

That is the opposite of momentum.

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