Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney serves pastries on his charter jet in North Charleston, S.C., Friday, Jan. 20, 2012, as he traveled to Greenville, S.C.

WASHINGTON — A political tip sheet for the rest of us outside the Washington Beltway, for Friday, Jan. 20, 2012:


DOIN' THE TIGHTEN UP: A raucous string of events — Texas Gov. Rick Perry left the race, Mitt Romney refused to release his tax returns, one of Newt Gingrich's ex-wives said he asked her for an "open" marriage, the four remaining candidates engaged in a spirited national debate and spoof candidate Stephen Colbert urged voters to support former contender Herman Cain at a Charleston, S.C., rally — going into Saturday's primary have left South Carolina voters undecided about whom to support. On the eve of the primary, polls now show Romney has slipped from the front of the pack to what he described Friday as a neck-and-neck contest with Gingrich. Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul trail in surveys. If Romney stumbles in South Carolina, it could portend a long, drawn-out battle for the nomination stretching well into spring and further exposing rifts inside the party between those most interested in choosing a candidate who's got the best chance of defeating Obama, and those whose strong preference is for a solid conservative.

COLBERT'S HERMAN CAIN WATCH: Comedian Stephen Colbert, who says he's running for president of "The United States of South Carolina," is urging voters in Saturday's presidential primary to cast their ballots for former Republican hopeful Herman Cain. The star of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" appeared with Cain at a rally Friday at the College of Charleston, telling the crowd of more than 3,000 that he's "believed in the message of Herman Cain for several days now." Cain, who dropped out of the race in December following allegations of sexual harassment and a longstanding extramarital affair, urged the crowd to vote for someone else.

LOOKING AHEAD TO FLORIDA: Organized labor is dropping a cool $1 million to slow Mitt Romney in the upcoming Florida primary. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is putting the former Massachusetts governor's business career in its cross-hairs, tying him to another businessman Florida voters fell out of love with — Gov. Rick Scott.

SINGING FOR DOLLARS: President Barack Obama hit his fifth fundraiser in two days Friday. About 20 supporters paid $35,800 to meet with the president at Washington's Jefferson Hotel, the day after four back-to-back events in New York. But only those who attended the gathering in Harlem's famed Apollo Theater had the president crooning — to them and singer-turned-reverend Al Green, who warmed up the crowd. " so in love with you," the president sang, from Green's classic, "Let's Stay Together." The enthusiastic response indicated the feeling was mutual.


200,000: The number of comments the Health and Human Services Department received on a proposed federal rule requiring church-affiliated institutions to provide free birth control for employees.

1: The number of years the rule will be postponed.

600: The number of Catholic hospitals that were denied exemption from the proposed rule and will have to provide free contraception to their employees when it goes into effect.

Between 1 million and 2 million: The number of employees who work for religious-affiliated institutions.


"I took a day off of the campaign trail. I wanted to make sure I was recorded voting against the national debt limit," Texas Rep. Ron Paul, explaining his absence on Wednesday from the campaign to supporters in Aiken, S.C.

"One candidate is too radioactive, a little too hot. And we have another candidate who is just too darn cold, who doesn't have bold plans, "— Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, taking the Goldilocks approach to assessing rivals Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney.

"Don't you love these guys? He doesn't release anything. He doesn't answer anything, and he's even confused about whether he will ever release anything. And then they decide to pick a fight over releasing stuff?" — Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, reacting to Mitt Romney's call for Gingrich to release documents relating to House ethics committee investigation of his activities while speaker in the mid-1990s.

"I realize that I had a lot of ground to make up and Speaker Gingrich is from a neighboring state, well known, popular ... and frankly to be in a neck-and-neck race at this last moment is kind of exciting." — Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on his standing in the race on the eve of the primary.