CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Republican activists hoping to deny the presidential nomination to Mitt Romney have long dreamed of finding one conservative alternative who could consolidate the anti-Romney feelings of many hard-core conservatives.
That goal briefly seemed a step closer Thursday in South Carolina. Texas Gov. Rick Perry quit the race and endorsed Newt Gingrich, who already was thought to be rising.
But the political fates were equally cruel and kind Thursday, leaving Saturday's primary in as much doubt as ever.
Soon after nightfall, Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum were sharply criticizing each other in a televised debate. Even with only four men on the stage, it was precisely the type of fracturing dynamic that has helped Romney divide his opposition for months.
Gingrich's problems didn't stop there. Just as the former House speaker was accepting Perry's late-morning endorsement, ABC News was airing portions of an interview with his second wife, Marianne. She said Gingrich had asked for "an open marriage" so he could continue his affair with a House staffer, now his third wife, Callista.
Gingrich angrily denounced CNN reporter John King for opening Thursday's debate with a question about the allegations. Gingrich called them untrue, and he blasted what he called the "destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media."
Nonetheless, Marianne Gingrich's comments might play poorly with South Carolina's evangelical voters, who made up 60 percent of the GOP electorate here four years ago.
Santorum has been trying to woo those voters. Even with last week's embrace by a national group of social conservative leaders, however, he has shown modest progress, on the surface at least.
By day's end, GOP strategists were questioning whether Perry's departure would hurt Romney much at all, considering Gingrich's and Santorum's struggles. No one expects libertarian-leaning Rep. Ron Paul to leave the race, but his constituency is largely seen as a special group that's not up for grabs.
That's not to say Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, escaped the topsy-turvy day unscathed. He got two doses of bad news, not counting Perry's endorsement.
One was minor: It's possible that the former Massachusetts governor narrowly lost the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus to Santorum rather than having won it by eight votes. The true outcome may never be known.
More damaging for Romney, his campaign acknowledged that some of his enormous personal wealth is invested in the Cayman Islands, a popular tax shelter. Aides said Romney didn't use the islands for that purpose. But the admission is certain to raise more questions about a touchy subject for Romney: his personal fortune and frequent tone-deafness on money matters.
He has acknowledged that he pays an effective tax rate of about 15 percent, lower than what he would pay if he earned a regular paycheck like many Americans. He once challenged Perry to a $10,000 bet over a disputed detail during a televised debate. And Romney has said he earned "not very much" by making speeches, although the total was $373,327 over 12 months.
Romney has grudgingly said he will release his tax returns in April. The Cayman hubbub will add to the pressure.
A number of veteran GOP campaign strategists say the campaign's increased confusion and disarray don't change Romney's front-runner status, even if he might need more time, and more states, than he had hoped to lock up the nomination.
"All of this really just still points to a Romney nomination," said longtime Republican adviser Terry Holt. South Carolina will be close, he said. But in the long run, "Newt is unelectable," Holt said.
Gingrich's fans will argue with that. But other unaligned GOP strategists agree Romney still has the edge.
"I still think it's advantage Romney, given that Santorum and Gingrich will split some votes and Romney can take the rest," said Brian Nick, who has lived in South Carolina and is monitoring the race from nearby Charlotte, N.C.
Indeed, Gingrich and Santorum took long turns attacking each other in Thursday's debate, while Romney serenely watched. After Gingrich touted his accomplishments as speaker in the mid-1990s, Santorum gave a totally different assessment.
"Four years into his speakership, he was thrown out by conservatives," Santorum said of events in late 1998. "It was an idea a minute. No discipline, no ability to pull things together."
Starting Sunday, Nick said, "the path to victory definitely favors Romney in places like Florida, Nevada and Michigan."
Florida, which votes Jan. 31, is a big, expensive state. Romney's superior money and organization might overwhelm anything that Gingrich or Santorum can bring to bear.
Nevada has many Mormons, a boon for Romney, who is Mormon. And his father, George Romney, was governor of Michigan.
Gingrich apparently gained little traction earlier this month by attacking Romney's record at Bain Capital, a private equity firm with a record of both adding and subtracting jobs in companies it reorganized. A pro-Gingrich super PAC has essentially stopped airing its TV attack ad based on Bain.
But Gingrich may have struck a nerve in last Monday's debate when he said, "more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history." He also vowed to "help poor people learn how to get a job."
Some, including former President Jimmy Carter, said the comments were meant to strike racial chords among white conservative voters. Gingrich denied the charge, and put the debate clips in a TV ad running heavily on South Carolina stations.
It's possible that Thursday's dramas will have little impact on Saturday's voting. Holly Gatling, a former news reporter and current anti-abortion activist in the state, said she believes most voters have already made up their minds.
"I'm not sure we're going to see a big surge for anybody," she said.
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(Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)