By Luke Brinker
Lagging in the polls and calculating that a unified conservative front is necessary to derail front-runner Mitt Romney in South Carolina, Rick Perry is set to end his presidential campaign and endorse Newt Gingrich this morning.
Perry’s withdrawal comes as Romney’s lead in South Carolina has diminished amid questions about his record at Bain Capital and his conservative credentials. Although an influential group of evangelical Christians endorsed Rick Santorum this past Saturday and pledged to assist his South Carolina campaign, Gingrich has emerged as Romney’s biggest threat in polls of the Palmetto State. By endorsing Gingrich, Perry adds to the narrative that the momentum in South Carolina is on the former House speaker’s side.
Of course, Perry’s support in South Carolina has been marginal, even as he staked his campaign’s fortunes on a strong performance in the state’s primary. The latest RealClearPolitics average of polls there has Perry at just 4.4 percent. Romney’s average lead over Gingrich is 7.6 percent, so getting all of Perry’s supporters wouldn’t be enough to propel Gingrich to victory on Saturday. On the other hand, supporters of hard-right Rick Santorum may look at Perry’s Gingrich endorsement and Gingrich’s rising fortunes in the polls and conclude that it’s best to support Gingrich as the most viable right-wing alternative to Romney. These hard-core conservatives are worried about a repeat of 2008, when John McCain beat the more conservative Mike Huckabee in South Carolina, largely thanks to the splintering of the conservative vote among Huckabee, Fred Thompson, and, yes, Romney. If the McCain win of four years ago is to be avoided, conservatives will need to coalesce behind Gingrich.
Still, Romney may yet prevail on Saturday. ABC News plans to air an interview tonight with Gingrich’s second wife, Marianne Gingrich, whom he divorced after conducting a years-long affair with current wife Callista Bisek Gingrich. In socially conservative South Carolina, it’s hard to see how this helps Gingrich, but many conservatives could see ABC’s decision to show the interview as part of a vicious smear campaign by pointy-headed elites in the lamestream media.
But even if Gingrich triumphs in South Carolina, Romney remains a solid favorite to capture the GOP nomination. Noting that the state’s primary has been won by ever GOP nominee since 1980, Gingrich’s pitch to supporters is that if he wins on Saturday night, he’s virtually certain to be the candidate to take on President Barack Obama in the fall. Yet political streaks are not iron rules. Until 2008, every presidential candidate to win Missouri since 1960 had gone on to win the presidency. The state lost its bellwether status when John McCain narrowly defeated Obama there. So while a white, conservative, older state offers an excellent read on the pulse of a white, conservative, older party, it’s quite possible that Romney could lose South Carolina but ultimately win the party nod. His financial advantages are formidable and he’s finally making solid gains in his national polling numbers. And as the Marianne Gingrich interview reminds us, Romney’s main opponent has no dearth of baggage.