THE Republican presidential nomination race was transformed as Texas governor Rick Perry dropped out and endorsed Newt Gingrich, while frontrunner Mitt Romney was stripped of his earlier victory in Iowa amid signs his once commanding lead ahead of tomorrow's primary in South Carolina was crumbling as well.
On perhaps the most tumultuous day yet in the topsy turvy battle for the GOP nomination, Mr Perry told reporters he saw "no viable path forward" in 2012. Instead he threw his weight behind Mr Gingrich, describing his rival (and friend) as "a conservative visionary who can transform the country".
"Newt is not perfect," he said of the scandal-plagued former Speaker of the House, "but who among us is?" Those words were clearly aimed at mitigating any damage Mr Gingrich might suffer from unflattering new revelations from his second wife Marianne, whom he divorced in 2000 amid much bitterness, in an interview with ABC News due to be aired last night.
After entering the race in August, Mr Perry rocketed to the top of the polls, but fell back just as quickly after a string of wretched debate performances. His support in South Carolina had dropped to the single digits, making his demise, sooner rather than later, inevitable.
But if the contest here between Mr Romney and Mr Gingrich is now as close as the latest polls suggest, the Texas governor's endorsement might make the difference between victory and defeat. That possibility alone was bad news enough for Mr Romney: the news from Iowa constituted more still. The certified result published yesterday shows a 34-vote victory for Rick Santorum instead of an eight-vote win for the former Massachusetts governor in the 3 January caucuses. The news changes little substantively, but destroys Mr Romney's momentum-generating claim to be the first man to win both Iowa and New Hampshire in a contested Republican primary season.
A few days ago, he looked set to wrap up a third straight primary victory here, which would virtually lock up the nomination. Come Sunday morning, he could find himself in the position of having lost two out of the first three contests, including South Carolina with its unblemished record of picking the eventual Republican nominee.
But Mr Santorum's belated success may not do him much good. Not only did the Perry withdrawal inevitably overshadow the news from Iowa, Mr Santorum also asked the Texas governor for his endorsement, but was turned down. Instead, he must battle libertarian congressman Ron Paul for third place here.
Cumulatively, yesterday's events pile the pressure on Mr Romney, who desperately needed a solid performance in last night's debate to atone for his limp showing on Monday - when one of the richest men ever to seek the presidency, worth some $250m ((pounds sterling)160m), again equivocated over releasing his tax returns. The next day he admitted he was paying taxes of roughly 15 per cent, the rate levied on investment income from the fortune he amassed during his controversial years at the private equity firm Bain
Mr Romney's main opponent has his own worries. Marianne Gingrich has made her ex-husband's campaign nervous enough to rush out a statement of support from his two daughters (by his first marriage). In the ABC interview, she accuses Mr Gingrich, then involved in an affair with his present wife Callista, of telling her he wanted an "open" marriage. Such sentiments, if true, will not sit well with evangelical Christians, more than half the Republican primary electorate here.
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