Matt Rourke, Associated Press
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Mitt Romney sized up the 2012 presidential race in South Carolina as a neck-and-neck contest on the eve of the state's pivotal primary and insisted Friday that he's the one candidate Republicans can trust to "post up well" against President Barack Obama. He trained his criticism on Newt Gingrich, a sure sign of the momentum behind the former speaker's rise-and-fall-and-rise candidacy.
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." Santorum said he's finally drawing enough campaign contributions to compete aggressively in next-up Florida and beyond, even if he finishes poorly in South Carolina.
Romney, campaigning in Gilbert, acknowledged Gingrich's recent rise in the polls by singling him out as his chief competitor in the state Romney lost four years ago. In 2008, Romney abandoned South Carolina when it became clear he would lose big.
He called on Gingrich to release a more detailed accounting of the investigation into his ethical problems as House speaker, 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.
Romney tried to frame a tight race as progress in the state he'd lost soundly before, although he's lost ground in recent polls.
"Frankly to be in a neck-and-neck race at this last moment is kind of exciting," he said
Romney called Gingrich "a feisty competitor" but argued the former House speaker was not the best man to put up against Obama. Surrogates to the former Massachusetts governor used a morning conference call with reporters to run down Gingrich's record on controlling government spending.
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 turned up on C-SPAN, said the GOP presidential race "has just transformed itself in the last 24 hours" and that he's still very much part of the mix.
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 supporters, in the call with reporters, said Gingrich oversaw rampant spending on lawmakers' special projects when he was House speaker. 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."
Romney, whose lead has shrunk in the race's closing days, 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, buoyed by Perry's endorsement, concentrated his efforts on the heavily pro-military Charleston area.
A day after questions about Gingrich's second marriage arose, Gingrich's third wife, Callista, was front and center when the couple appeared at The Medical University of South Carolina Children's Hospital. Mrs. 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.