South Carolina Primary: Romney's Lead Evaporates Nationally and in State

HUMA KHAN
South Carolina Primary: Romney's Lead Evaporates Nationally and in State
South Carolina Primary: Romney's Lead Evaporates Nationally and in State (ABC News)

A day before the South Carolina primary, it's almost anyone's game in the Palmetto state.

Once the clear front-runner, Mitt Romney's lead both in the state and nationally is quickly evaporating. Romney is leading Newt Gingrich by only 10 percentage points, sharply down from the 23 percentage-point lead he enjoyed at the beginning of the week, according to a new Gallup poll released today.

"Romney is a considerably weaker front-runner among Republican registered voters nationally than he was at the beginning of the week," states Gallup's analysis.

The former Massachusetts governor doesn't place much better in state polls.

A survey by Politico found Romney leading Gingrich by only 7 points. Romney holds a 10 percentage-point lead over the former House speaker, which is about half of what it was earlier this month, a poll by NBC News-Marist showed.

Both polls were conducted before Thursday night's debate, in which Gingrich once again received a standing ovation – twice – and clearly outshined his opponents.

Gingrich is riding high from his performance at the CNN debate. And it wasn't just his lashing out at moderator John King for opening up the debate with questions about his second wife's comments to ABC News that he wanted an "open marriage." Gingrich was also helped by a flat performance by his chief rival, Mitt Romney, who struggled to answer questions about his tax record, even drawing boos from the crowd at one point.

"This was a gift for Newt Gingrich. This only is going to help the momentum," Republican strategist and ABC News contributor Matthew Dowd said, referring to ex-wife Marianne Gingrich's claims. "He could easily -- because of that answer last night -- tomorrow win South Carolina."

Gingrich campaigned heavily in the state today but canceled an appearance this morning at the Southern Republican Leaders Conference because of weak attendance. The attendance at the entire conference appeared to be sparse but Rep. Ron Paul and Rick Santorum spoke there anyway. Former candidate Herman Cain was the only one who drew a larger-than-usual crowd.

Romney continues to take hits on the tax front. He has tried, unsuccessfully, to downplay his wealth and has said he would release his tax records in April, despite calls for him to release the information now. Gingrich released his 2010 tax records Thursday.

Romney took a more cautious approach today, saying he is "pretty confident, cautiously optimistic" about Saturday's primary but continued to skirt questions about his tax records.

"When I look at the crowd this morning, my enthusiasm meter went up, my confidence goes up," he said. "But we'll see what the numbers are in the final tally."

But Gingrich isn't without his own challenges. Santorum, another conservative favorite, has also built considerable momentum in the past week in South Carolina and is likely to take away votes from Gingrich, thereby helping Romney. Santorum's victory in the Iowa caucuses, announced Thursday, helped jolt new momentum into his campaign, which could hurt Gingrich Saturday.

The former Pennsylvania senator also delivered a strong performance at Thursday night's debate, challenging both Gingrich and Romney and vying to establish himself as the conservative alternative to Romney.

Then there's also Rep. Ron Paul. The congressman from Texas has yet to build as strong of a support group in South Carolina as he did in the first two voting states, but remains a strong force on the campaign trail.

And even though he's dodging the tax issue, Romney still continues to draw support from conservatives. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, an establishment favorite, endorsed him today, as did Michael Reagan and South Carolina's the Post and Courier newspaper.

The paper's editorial board said that he "is the Republican with the best chance of winning the White House in November" and is the "best candidate for the job."

Romney also received praises from former campaign spokesman to Jon Huntsman, Tim Miller, who, in an op-ed in Real Clear Politics, offered a glowing assessment of "how strong of a campaign Governor Romney ran, and how he did it at a time that uniquely suits his background and character."

The former governor also has a strong grassroots network in Florida, which will hold its primary next, Jan. 31. But the question remains about whether he can answer questions about his tax history and satisfy the base.