NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. —In the most extraordinary day of the Republican presidential race, a series of fast-paced and unexpected events shook the candidates and their campaigns Thursday, significantly changing the dynamic of the contest just two days before a crucial primary that many thought might settle the nomination.
It was a day of split-screen viewing and almost hourly recalibration. Iowa Republicans declared former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) the new winner of their Jan. 3 caucuses, erasing Mitt Romney’s eight-vote victory. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who had one of the largest donor networks of any candidate, quit the race and endorsed former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who was gaining momentum but faced new challenges as an ex-wife accused him in two interviews of asking for an “open marriage.”
Texas governor Rick Perry announced that he is ending his campaign for president and endorsing Newt Gingrich on Thursday. (Jan. 19)
GOP METER: A look at how the 2012 Republican candidates for president differ on key issues.
And that was all before mid-afternoon. Thursday was capped by the second candidate debate in four days, this time with just four contenders — Romney, Gingrich, Santorum and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) — onstage and with more at stake than in any of the previous forums.
The debate was more evenly balanced between the two front-runners than a forum earlier in which Gingrich gained the upper hand. Santorum was especially aggressive in challenging his rivals, but saved his most pointed criticism for Gingrich, saying his temperament and style would make him a risk to lead the party against President Obama in November.
The most electric moment came at the start, when Gingrich, to enthusiastic applause, rebuked moderator John King of CNN for raising the issue of his ex-wife’s interview. Calling it “trash” and “as close to despicable as anything I can imagine” to open the debate on that topic, he said he was “appalled” by the question.
But the fireworks began long before the cameras started rolling. For the first time on Thursday, a race that only a few days earlier appeared to be almost on autopilot — with Romney in control and looking to wrap up the nomination quickly — was suddenly careering toward Saturday’s primary with Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, fighting to avoid a potentially costly defeat by Gingrich that would send the race on to Florida for a Jan. 31 primary.
The news represented potential problems for Romney, whose missteps earlier in the week helped breathe life into the contest. Whether he was in genuine trouble was not clear, but by Thursday afternoon there was at least a sense that the contest was again in flux.
The candidates appeared at multiple events on Thursday and the airwaves were packed with vivid advertisements that competed with the stream of breaking political news. Adding to the carnival atmosphere was a planned appearance by comedian Stephen Colbert and a speech by Herman Cain, the former pizza company executive who dropped out of the race weeks ago, at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Charleston.
The swift developments of the adrenaline-fueled day were another example of how the Republican contest has defied easy characterization from the start. And they helped South Carolina begin to live up to a reputation of delivering memorable and hotly contested primaries.