Appearing increasingly confident as he campaigned Friday, Gingrich said that with the consolidation of the conservative vote, he could win “a shockingly big victory” Saturday. “The only effective conservative vote to stop the Massachusetts moderate is to vote for me,” he told an overflow rally in Orangeburg. “That’s what all the polls are saying now.”
Romney, recognizing the trend lines, began to lower expectations about the state’s primary and its effect on the GOP race. “I said from the very beginning South Carolina is an uphill battle for a guy from Massachusetts,” Romney told reporters after a rain-soaked outdoor rally on a muddy farm in Gilbert.
Polls in South Carolina show a race that has changed dramatically in a matter of days. Gingrich has surged, and Romney has slumped. An NBC News/Marist poll released Thursday showed a sharp tightening of the race after Monday’s debate, where Gingrich drew the audience to its feet with a sharp answer about the value of a work ethic.
Romney led by 15 points, 37 percent to 22 percent, among likely voters who were interviewed the day of the debate but by just five percentage points the day after. Other polls have showed Romney’s lead evaporating in South Carolina, as well. In a new Gallup poll, Romney’s lead nationally has settled from a high of 23 percentage points back to 10, still significant but slimmer that it was a week ago.
A Gingrich victory would break a long-standing pattern in Republican races: It would mean the first three contests had been won by three different people, a further sign of how unsettled the contest has been.
Politicians here sense the shift in sentiment. “The wind’s at Newt’s back,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R), who has not endorsed any of the candidates. Sen. Jim DeMint (R), who four years ago was with Romney but has remained neutral this year, said South Carolina is “clearly a two-man race.”
Adding to Gingrich’s momentum was the decision Thursday by Texas Gov. Rick Perry to quit the race and endorse the former speaker. But still standing in Gingrich’s way as he tries to coalesce conservatives is former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who in Thursday’s debate questioned Gingrich’s temperament and fitness to lead.
Romney’s campaign has long prepared for a lengthy nomination battle and has superior resources if that becomes necessary. Only a week ago, he was looking to win all three of the initial contests, an outcome that would have put him on a glide path to the nomination. But with Thursday’s announcement that Santorum and not Romney had narrowly won the caucuses in Iowa, Romney is looking at the possibility of being a front-runner who has lost two of the first three contests.