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Fierce debate tops bizarre GOP campaign day in SC

Published: Thursday, Jan. 19 2012 7:26 p.m. MST

Republican presidential candidates former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich shake hands before the start of the Republican presidential candidate debate at the North Charleston Coliseum in Charleston, S.C., Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012.  (David Goldman, Associated Press) Republican presidential candidates former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich shake hands before the start of the Republican presidential candidate debate at the North Charleston Coliseum in Charleston, S.C., Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012. (David Goldman, Associated Press)

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — The race for the Republican presidential nomination took a turn toward the South Carolina surreal Thursday as Rick Perry dropped out, Newt Gingrich faced stunning allegations from an ex-wife and Mitt Romney struggled to maintain a shaky front-runner's standing.

An aggressive, elbows-flying evening debate capped the bewildering day.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum played aggressor for much of the night, struggling to inject himself into what seemed increasingly like a two-way race with less than 48 hours remaining until the South Carolina polls open on Saturday. He accused Gingrich and Romney of "playing footsies with the left" when it came to health care. Both men rejected the allegations.

The debate began a few hours after first word that Romney had been stripped of his Iowa caucus victory, then had been stung by Perry's withdrawal and endorsement of Gingrich.

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at the Republican presidential candidate debate at the North Charleston Coliseum in Charleston, S.C., Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012.  (David Goldman, Associated Press) Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at the Republican presidential candidate debate at the North Charleston Coliseum in Charleston, S.C., Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012. (David Goldman, Associated Press)

Gingrich, in turn, was accused by an ex-wife of seeking an open marriage so he could keep his mistress.

"Newt's not perfect, but who among us is," said Perry, abruptly quitting the race just before the first-in-the-South primary.

His decision to end a once-promising candidacy left Romney, Gingrich, Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul the remaining contenders in the race to pick a Republican to challenge Democratic President Barack Obama this fall.

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