A resurgent Newt Gingrich, further buoyed by Rick Perry's withdrawal from the Republican presidential race, has virtually closed the gap with front-runner Mitt Romney on the eve of the critical South Carolina primary.
An upset win or near victory by Mr. Gingrich in Saturday's vote would dramatically reshape the GOP contest, providing a new opening for the anti-Romney forces to unite behind a single candidate and deprive the ex-Massachusetts governor of the nomination.
Despite Mr. Perry's unexpected endorsement, however, Mr. Gingrich faced new headwinds on Thursday, as an ex-wife claimed the former House of Representatives speaker once sought an "open marriage" with her so he could maintain a mistress.
The allegation forced Mr. Gingrich on the defensive at the opening of Thursday evening's CNN debate. But instead of addressing it directly, he turned his guns on the American media for raising his "personal pain."
"I am frankly astounded that CNN would take trash like that to open presidential debate," the ex-speaker said. "The story is false. ... I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans."
The ABC News interview with Marianne Gingrich, whom Mr. Gingrich divorced in 1999 after conducting a long affair and being ousted from the speaker's job in a Republican coup, was among a slew of new developments on Thursday that shook up the GOP race.
The Iowa Republican Party released certified results of the state's Jan. 3 caucuses that gave Rick Santorum a 34-vote lead over Mr. Romney. The new result overturned Mr. Romney's eight-vote victory and deprived him of historic bragging rights as the only non-incumbent to win both the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.
The Iowa GOP did not declare an official winner, since it was unable to obtain a final vote count from eight of the state's 1,774 precincts. But Mr. Santorum claimed victory, hoping it would boost his candidacy in South Carolina, where he has slipped in the polls.
Indeed, no fewer than six polls released Thursday confirmed Mr. Gingrich's strong momentum in the state on the heels of his scrappy performance in a Monday debate here. Three surveys by reputable polling firms showed Mr. Gingrich with a slight lead.
Mr. Gingrich's attack on Barack Obama as "the food stamp president" drew criticism for its perceived racial overtones. But the debate audience gave him a standing ovation and Mr. Gingrich spun the clip into a TV ad that has been running heavily in South Carolina.
"Gingrich is certainly narrowing the gap. I think it's going to be a very tight election on Saturday," offered ex-U.S. ambassador to Canada, David Wilkins, a former speaker of the South Carolina legislature who remains an influential figure in state politics.
Mr. Wilkins, an early supporter of Mr. Perry, threw his support behind Mr. Romney on Thursday, arguing he is the best candidate to fix the economy and beat Mr. Obama.
The Gingrich surge raised the stakes in Thursday evening's CNN debate, forcing Mr. Romney to raise his tone and abandon the reserved demeanour he had maintained in recent candidate encounters. He used the ex-speaker's attacks on his business record at private equity firm Bain Capital to paint his rival as a fair-weather friend of capitalism.
"I know we're going to be attacked from the left, from Barack Obama, on capitalism. I find it a little strange on a stage like this with Republicans having to explain how private equity works," Mr. Romney said in response to Mr. Gingrich's suggestions he "looted" companies.
"I'm going stand up and defend capitalism. …We're going to stuff it down [Mr. Obama's]throat and make him understand that it is capitalism and freedom that make this country strong."
Mr. Perry, the Texas governor, rocketed to the top of the field upon his entry into the GOP race in August. But disastrous early debate performances and questions about his conservative credentials on immigration and government intervention dogged him.
Conceding there was "no viable path forward" for his candidacy – the most recent polls had him at barely 5 per cent in South Carolina and nationally – Mr. Perry pulled out and endorsed Mr. Gingrich in spite of his past criticism of the ex-speaker's infidelity.
"Newt is not perfect, but who among us is?" Mr. Perry said. "The fact is, there is forgiveness for those who seek God. And I believe in the power of redemption."
Delegates at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Charleston expressed mixed views about the interview with Mr. Gingrich's former wife, with most dismissing its impact on their vote but conceding that it underscored the ex-speaker's "baggage."
"It's not that big of a deal to me. We all know he's had three wives," said Jon Frye, 40, a website designer from Charleston who supports the ex-speaker. "I think he's got a good plan for the country."
Still, renewed discussion of Mr. Gingrich's marital infidelity – he was conducting the affair while leading the charge against Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal – is not likely to help his image among Republican women, already a weakness for him.
"I've always had a little bit of a trust issue with Newt," offered Nancy Corbin, 66, a retiree from nearby Berkeley Co., who supports Mr. Santorum.