CHARLESTON, S.C. — Put the champagne on ice. Hold the coronation.
Mitt Romney's hopes of quickly clinching the Republican presidential nomination may be fading. He now finds himself facing a very tough fight with Newt Gingrich, a man he thought he'd buried back in Iowa.
Gingrich could stumble again, his personal flaws underscored anew Thursday when his second wife broke a long silence to tell how he wanted to have an open marriage so he could maintain an extramarital relationship with the woman who eventually became his third wife.
But Gingrich has risen from the political graveyard twice already this campaign, proving that he has enough presence, particularly in televised debates, to escape oblivion. And Romney this week is facing enough questions — about his wealth and taxes, about his support among conservatives, about his inevitability — that he looks ripe for a longer challenge.
All the bad news for Romney came to a head Thursday, as he huddled in a Charleston hotel preparing for an evening debate.
First, Romney found out that he did not win the Iowa caucuses after all.
The former governor of Massachusetts had come into South Carolina looking like the first non-incumbent ever to win both Iowa and New Hampshire. Romney's always planned for a coast-to-coast fight for the nomination — ala Barack Obama in 2008. But he hoped a win in South Carolina would give him an incredible three-state sweep and with it an aura of invincibility.
But the Iowa Republican Party announced Thursday that a closer check of the votes in the Jan. 3 precinct caucuses revealed that Romney did not eke out an eight-vote win over former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, as initially reported. Rather, Santorum finished with 34 more votes than Romney.
Then Texas Gov. Rick Perry dropped out of the race Thursday, throwing his support to Gingrich.
Next, new polls revealed that Romney's losing ground fast to the suddenly re-energized Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives. Just two days after holding a double-digit lead, Romney found himself neck and neck with Gingrich — and trailing in some surveys. Three out of four polls conducted through Wednesday evening and released Thursday showed Gingrich with an edge or outright lead over Romney.
The difference appears to stem from when the pollsters asked their questions; Gingrich surged after a commanding debate performance Monday night. An NBC-Marist poll, for example, found Romney leading by 15 points, 37 percent to 22 percent, on Monday evening, before the debate in Myrtle Beach. After that debate sank in, Romney led by just 5 points, 31 percent to 26 percent, on Tuesday night.
Indeed, Gingrich's command on stage in a debate is key to his resurgence, as it was in December when he took the lead in Iowa, only to lose it when Romney and allies unleashed a crushing barrage of negative ads against him, and leading establishment conservatives piled on, too.
In South Carolina, likely primary voters who watched the Monday debate supported Gingrich by 43 percent to 27 percent, according to a survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm. Voters who did not watch the debate support Romney by 29 percent to 22 percent.
Looking ahead to Florida, there will be two televised debates before that state votes on Jan. 31.
Gingrich is also getting a boost from tea party voters starting to rally to him. Tea party icon Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee, this week urged South Carolina Republicans to vote for Gingrich to at least keep the nomination fight going.
"If I were a South Carolinian ... I would want to see this thing continue because iron sharpens iron, steel sharpens steel," she said Tuesday evening on Fox News. "If I had to vote in South Carolina, in order to keep this thing going, I'd vote for Newt. And I would want things to continue. More debates, more vetting of candidates."
Whether it stemmed from Monday's debate, Palin's push or Romney's stumbles, by the time Public Policy Polling surveyed voters Wednesday, Gingrich led Romney among tea party voters by 50 percent to 18 percent.
"I can feel the momentum," said Allen Olson, the former chairman of the Columbia Tea Party who resigned his post to volunteer for Gingrich's campaign. "He's going to win Saturday."
Romney also found himself on the defensive about his wealth and how much taxes he pays. Over three days, voters saw him stumble in the debate over when or whether he'd release his personal tax records, as most candidates do. They heard him reveal that he paid about 15 percent of his income in federal taxes, lower than many high-income taxpayers because he makes most of his money from investments. And they saw ABC report that Romney keeps millions of dollars in investments offshore in the Cayman Islands.
Romney press secretary Andrea Saul said Romney pays the same U.S. taxes on those funds as he would if they were in a U.S. bank. "These are not tax havens and it is false to say so," she said.
But The Wall Street Journal said that Romney actually might be escaping a little-known tax by keeping the money offshore.
Meanwhile, Perry's support for Gingrich could help persuade some social conservatives to support the former speaker even in the face of the shocking ABC interview with ex-wife Marianne Gingrich.
"I believe Newt is a conservative visionary who can transform this country," Perry said. "Newt is not perfect, but who among us is? The fact is, there is forgiveness for those who seek God. And I believe in the power of redemption."
(David Lightman of the Washington Bureau and Gina Smith and Adam Beam of The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., contributed.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow Steven Thomma on Twitter
For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington
McClatchy Newspapers 2012