Tightening Race Comes as Abrupt Blow to Romney Team

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Courtesy of New York Times:

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — With Mitt Romney facing the biggest challenge to his presidential aspirations since he announced his candidacy, his aides acknowledged Friday what seemed unthinkable just seven days ago: He could lose the South Carolina primary

After arriving here last week fresh off of what seemed to be two victories in a row in Iowa and New Hampshire, Mr. Romney was suddenly confronting the prospect of leaving as the winner of only one of the first three nominating contests.

Having been stripped of his victory in Iowa on Thursday after a recount that gave the state to Rick Santorum, Mr. Romney now is in danger of being defeated in Saturday’s primary here by Newt Gingrich, who had been declared dead not once but twice in the past year, including less than two weeks ago when he finished fifth in New Hampshire. A new Clemson University poll of South Carolina voters released on Friday showed Mr. Gingrich with a six-point lead over Mr. Romney. It was within the survey’s margin of sampling error but captured a dynamic shifting in Mr. Gingrich’s favor.

At this stage of a primary election, campaigns work hard to manage expectations so they can put the best possible face on the actual voting results; Mr. Romney’s aides were no doubt being mindful of that as they spoke in relatively gloomy tones.

But, as Mr. Romney faced attacks from all sides, renewed questions about his own stumbles and whether he is conservative enough for the grass roots of his party, there was a real aura of apprehension coursing through his campaign. With his prospects of wrapping the race up quickly apparently diminished, Mr. Romney and his strategists began preparing his staff, his supporters and his financial bundlers for a longer and rougher march toward the nomination.

“I said from the very beginning, South Carolina is an uphill battle for a guy from Massachusetts,” Mr. Romney told reporters who traveled with him to Gilbert on Friday, a stark shift in tenor from his more buoyant demeanor a few days ago. “I knew that. We’re battling hard. The fact is that right now it looks like it’s neck and neck; that’s a pretty good spot to be in.”

In a sign that the fight was far from over, Mr. Romney opened a new line of attack against Mr. Gingrich by demanding that he release records relating to the Congressional ethics investigation that had him as its target in the 1990s and that resulted in a $300,000 fine.

And, shifting into a potentially longer term plan to accumulate the delegates he needs in contests across the country, Mr. Romney’s campaign bought advertising time for the Nevada caucuses on Feb. 4.

Combined with his advertising and sophisticated efforts to encourage early voting by supporters in Florida, whose primary is Jan. 31, it was a display of how Mr. Romney’s political operation remains the class of the field in terms of money and organization.

But his normally disciplined on-the-ground operation has seemed to have difficulty adapting to the rapidly evolving political climate. And on Friday his finance team felt compelled to hold a conference call with nervous fund-raisers and state campaign officials in which his senior adviser, Eric Fehrnstrom, urged calm as some of them vented frustration at how Mr. Romney had handled calls to release tax returns.

Mr. Romney committed himself on Friday to releasing several years of tax returns after hedging about his plans for weeks and being booed at Thursday night’s debate as he equivocated on the subject. In the span of five days, Mr. Romney had gone from an all-out refusal to a reluctant pledge to release returns by April. He started by saying he would disclose a single year, but by Friday he said “it will be more” than one year.

Mr. Romney’s aides and supporters balanced their task of lowering expectations with keeping positive on the eve of Saturday’s voting. “It’s going to be tight, but the energy’s been good all day,” Gov. Nikki R. Haley of South Carolina said Friday at a stop with Mr. Romney here. “That’s what happens in South Carolina; nobody runs away with South Carolina.”

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