CHARLESTON, S.C. — Newt Gingrich appeared headed for a big victory in South Carolina's Republican presidential primary Saturday, as he rides a wave of momentum cresting off two strong debate performances here this week.
"This Gingrich thing — you can feel it," said Dave Woodard, a professor of political science at Clemson University and a Republican consultant.
A new American Research Group poll released Saturday showed Gingrich with 40 percent, while former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney trailed at 26 percent. The poll was taken Thursday and Friday.
It was further evidence how, in the last week, Romney has seen his double-digit poll lead evaporated, though he remains formidable with a well-financed, campaign organization.
Romney and Gingrich were expected to meet Saturday morning at Tommy's Ham House in Greenville. They were scheduled to appear at the same time, but Romney showed up early and missed Gingrich.
Also competing here is former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum closed the week with a strong debate performance Thursday night. He got 13 percent in the ARG poll. Santorum learned Thursday that he 'd won the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3 after all, rather than finishing eight votes behind Romney, as originally reported. Santorum also won endorsement last weekend from a group of prominent national evangelical leaders, which could give him a boost with social conservative voters, who made up 60 percent of this state's GOP electorate in 2008.
Last, there's Texas Rep. Ron Paul, whose impassioned libertarian following assures that he'll take a slice of the South Carolina vote; polls put him in the 10 percent to 15 percent range.
Since 1980, no Republican has won his party's nomination without first winning South Carolina's primary. A Gingrich win would anoint him as the Republicans' most prominent conservative contender and build his momentum.
That would be a significant setback to Romney and would heighten questions about his political viability as the race moves to Florida, which holds its primary Jan. 31. Alternatively, a Romney win here could all but guarantee him the nomination, something even Gingrich effectively conceded this week.
And a Santorum surge into second place is not inconceivable.
"People may be voting not so much for Gingrich, but just to keep the primaries going," said Kendra Stewart, an associate professor of political science at the College of Charleston.
Romney didn't seem overly confident Friday.
"Speaker Gingrich is from a neighboring state (Georgia), well known, popular in this state. ... To be in a neck-and-neck race at this last moment is kind of exciting," Romney said. "We're going to go on for a long race, and I think I've got the staying power and a message I believe connects with people."
A new Clemson University Palmetto Poll released Friday found Gingrich up by 6 percentage points — but its error margin was 5 points and the survey was taken over the previous six days, so many of the poll's 429 respondents hadn't heard the many late-breaking campaign developments in this tumultuous week. One of every five voters polled remained undecided.
Romney and Gingrich spent Friday trying to quell simmering controversies.
Romney, campaigning on a rainy day at a Christmas tree farm in Gilbert, said he would release his tax returns "when they're prepared," presumably in April, and "there will be more than one year."
Defending him was South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who campaigned with him.
"The people in South Carolina are not talking about tax returns," she said. "They're talking about jobs, spending and the economy. In all honesty, I've heard more people wondering why you guys aren't asking about ethics reports and ethics problems with the Gingrich campaign."
That gave Romney an opening to talk about Gingrich's past ethical troubles. Gingrich paid a $300,000 penalty in 1997 for lying to the House Ethics Committee. The House of Representatives then overwhelmingly reprimanded him, the first time in history that a House speaker had been disciplined for ethical lapses.
Romney spokeswoman Gail Gitcho said in statement: "Given Speaker Gingrich's newfound interest in disclosure and transparency, and his concern about an 'October surprise,' he should authorize the release of the complete record of the ethics proceedings against him."
Gingrich fired back.
"He (Romney) doesn't release anything, he doesn't answer anything and he's even confused whether or not he will ever release anything, and then they decide to pick a fight over releasing stuff?" said Gingrich. "He could have today released his tax records so the voters of South Carolina could discover something."
Gingrich also continued to be dogged by his marital history. Marianne Gingrich, his second wife, said in an ABC News interview Thursday that her ex-husband wanted an "open marriage" in 1999 so he could have an affair while still married. They divorced in 2000, and Gingrich then married his paramour, Callista Bisek, the third Mrs. Gingrich. The renewed attention to the 12-year-old marital mess wasn't what the Gingrich campaign wanted voters thinking about.
"It's not going to help him," said Karen Kedrowski, a professor of political science at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.
While social conservatives "could be turned off" by Gingrich's past ethical lapses, Kedrowski said, they may not go to Romney because "he's weak on taxes and health care."
Santorum, campaigning in Fort Mill on Friday, called Gingrich "radioactive" and Romney "timid."
Gingrich has "a lot of ideas," Santorum conceded. But "being president isn't an intellectual exercise, it's an exercise in leadership. You don't need a billion ideas. You have to have good ideas based on the values that made this country what it is."
As for Romney, "You're not quite sure where he is on the issues," Santorum said. "And we better have a (Republican) candidate who presents a clear contrast" with President Barack Obama.
Gingrich's shoestring campaign showed its organizational weakness Friday when he canceled his first event for lack of attendees. A relatively low-key day followed by Gingrich standards, capping a weeklong surge that detonated for him with a commanding performance in Monday night's Myrtle Beach debate.
"You could just sense things begin to change after that Monday debate," said Woodard, the Clemson professor. "By Wednesday, you could almost taste it."
(Tim Funk of The Charlotte Observer and Marc Caputo of The Miami Herald contributed.)
ON THE WEB: American Research Group poll
MORE FROM McCLATCHY: