GILBERT, S.C. — Working to fend off a surging Newt Gingrich in what's become an unexpectedly tight race in South Carolina, presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Friday he expects he will lose some state contests to Gingrich during a prolonged fight for the GOP nomination.
"I expect that Newt will win some primaries and contests and I expect I will as well," Romney said on the Laura Ingraham radio show a day before voting begins in the critical South Carolina primary. "I'm not expecting to win them all."
Romney didn't directly say he expects to lose in South Carolina, and in a separate appearance Friday described the contest as "neck-and-neck." But senior aides acknowledged they wouldn't be surprised if he lost the primary.
Romney's comments were his most blunt acknowledgement yet of the trouble his campaign faced amid a reality much changed from 10 days ago when he won the New Hampshire primary in a landslide. They also recognized the possibility that Gingrich could take a South Carolina victory on to other states and win again.
Romney's campaign appeared visibly rattled the day before voting began. His standing in polls had tumbled after a week of constant attack ads and self-made problems. Senior advisers and campaign hands were preparing for a long fight.
"He will win. It's a question of when," said Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who campaigned with Romney on Friday.
Romney came to South Carolina after twin victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, only to see his Iowa victory thrown into question because of problems with the count. He then spent a week trying to answer questions about his personal wealth and when he will release his tax returns.
Romney tried to change the subject from his unreleased tax returns to the ethics investigation Gingrich faced 15 years ago.
Gingrich's House reprimand in 1997 presented an opportunity to talk about something else. When asked if Gingrich should release the Ethics Committee report that resulted in the first such action against a House speaker, Romney replied, "Of course he should."
"Nancy Pelosi has the full record of that ethics investigation," he said. "You know it's going to get out ahead of the general election."
In fact, the 1,280-page committee report on Gingrich is already public. Campaign officials said Romney was referring to other documents that Gingrich has referenced and that Pelosi has also mentioned.
"Given Speaker Gingrich's newfound interest in disclosure and transparency, and his concern about an 'October surprise,' he should authorize the release of the complete record of the ethics proceedings against him," Romney spokeswoman Gail Gitcho said.
Romney's campaign was calling South Carolina voters with a recording attacking Gingrich's ethics record and calling on him to release any documents related to the inquiry.
In December, Pelosi told Talking Points Memo that she had served on the committee that conducted the investigation and implied that more information about the investigation could come to light. At the time Gingrich said the House should retaliate against Pelosi if she released any additional information.
"We turned over 1 million pages of material," Gingrich said then. "We had a huge report."
Gingrich's campaign said Romney's criticism represented a "panic attack" on the part of his campaign.
Romney on Friday said again that he wouldn't release his tax returns until April, which would probably be after Republicans choose their nominee.
"I realize that I had a lot of ground to make up and Speaker Gingrich is from a neighboring state, well-known, popular in the state," Romney said as he campaigned in Gilbert. "Frankly, to be in a neck-and-neck race at this last moment is kind of exciting."
Romney's campaign has rolled out endorsement after endorsement this week as he has tried to build a case that he is the most electable nominee. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman joined him on Thursday and McDonnell was with Romney on Friday.
McDonnell said he had been in touch with Romney's campaign for several weeks as they discussed the timing for the endorsement and decided it was most needed now, even as Romney looks ahead to a long campaign.
"It's the first Southern primary. I'm a Southern governor. I thought I could help," McDonnell said.
The campaign's attack message jumped from rival to rival and topic to topic as Romney fought to stay afloat here.
At the beginning of the week, Romney attacked rival Rick Santorum over voting rights for felons. Then he went after Gingrich's claims that he created jobs under President Ronald Reagan, saying Gingrich was living in "fantasyland." Meanwhile, his surrogates held a series of conference calls attacking his rivals, first calling Gingrich an unreliable leader and then pivoting to attack his ethics record.
In Thursday night's GOP debate, Romney continued his string of off-message remarks about his wealth, saying he has lived "in the real streets of America." A multimillionaire, he has three homes, one each in Massachusetts, California and New Hampshire.
Romney held three campaign events Friday in his last-ditch push to stem Gingrich's momentum. After stopping in Gilbert, he held a rally in North Charleston and flew to Greenville in the conservative upstate for a nighttime rally and a stop at his campaign headquarters before an evening event in Columbia, the state capital.
On a plane between events Friday night, Romney was outwardly cheerful in spite of a difficult day ahead, gamely bantering with reporters as he served pastries from Panera Bread.
"Pain au chocolat, smart move!" he said to one, proferring the box and a pair of tongs to take the desserts.
As he moved farther back into the plane, though, he dispensed with the tongs.
"Just use your fingers," he said. "To heck with it!"