GREENVILLE, S.C. — Preparing for the long haul, Mitt Romney said Saturday's South Carolina presidential contest "could be real close" and he agreed to two more debates with his rivals ahead of the Florida primary.
In the face of questions about releasing his tax returns and struggling with a renewed threat from Newt Gingrich, Romney lashed out at the former speaker, calling on the former House speaker to better explain his contractual ties to Freddie Mac, the quasi-government mortgage company. Gingrich served as a consultant to Freddie Mac over a period of eight years.
Romney said he would attend a debate Monday in Tampa, Fla., and his campaign confirmed he would be at one Thursday in Jacksonville, Fla., ahead of the state's primary Jan. 31. His planned appearances are an acknowledgment that the former Massachusetts governor will have to continue the battle with Gingrich longer than expected or hoped.
But Romney avoided confronting Gingrich, his chief rival in South Carolina's first-in-the South vote, at a stop at Tommy's Country Ham House.
Both men had scheduled campaign events for the same time on primary day. Romney stopped by the breakfast restaurant 45 minutes ahead of schedule. When Gingrich arrived at the restaurant — just minutes after Romney's bus left the parking lot — he said: "Where's Mitt?"
About an hour earlier, Romney was outside of his Greenville headquarters, launching a new attack on the speaker. He called on Gingrich to further explain his contracts with Freddie and release any advice he had provided. "I'd like to see what he actually told Freddie Mac. Don't you think we ought to see it?" Romney said.
It was another response to pressure on Romney to release his tax returns before Republican voters finish choosing a nominee. A day earlier, Romney had called on Gingrich to release information related to an ethics investigation of Gingrich in the 1990s.
Romney says he will release several years' worth of tax returns in April. Gingrich has called on him to release them much sooner. On Saturday, Romney refused to answer questions from reporters about the returns and whether his refusal to release them had hurt him with South Carolina voters.
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Romney still has significant advantages over his three remaining Republican rivals, including an enormous financial edge and a well-organized campaign. But with his Iowa victory now rescinded, losing in South Carolina would be a setback that could draw the primary contest out much longer.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 was looking ahead to the general election as they anticipated a quick sweep in early primaries.
"This could be real close," said Romney as he chatted on the phone with a voter he called Saturday morning. He urged the man to go vote.
And as he stood on a chair inside Tommy's, where it was impossible to tell who in the tightly packed crowd was there to see him and who was there to see Gingrich, a woman shouted her thanks for buying breakfast.
"I'm happy to pay for breakfast," Romney responded, "but there's no free lunch."