Candidates make final push in South Carolina

Campaign 2012 South Carolina Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum over South Carolina flag. CBS/AP

Newt Gingrich,  Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum
CBS/AP

In the final hours before South Carolinians head to the polls to cast their votes, the race is on as the four remaining candidates crisscross the Palmetto state. And the stakes are high.

Since 1980, South Carolina has been determined to be a must-win state as every Republican primary winner has gone on to win the nomination.

So with candidates fully aware of those stakes, the back-and-forth between frontrunners Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney is intensifying. Mitt Romney spent the day playing down expectations, defending his position on his taxes and hitting Gingrich on transparency.

For the first time since new Iowa caucus results were released Thursday, Romney admitted defeat.

He also acknowledged the tight race South Carolina has become. "I sure would like to win South Carolina," he said. "But I don't know what the numbers will be. I'm pretty confident, cautiously optimistic."

At left, Bob Schieffer breaks down the biggest moments from Thursday night's Republican debate.

In a series of campaign stops and sessions with the media, Romney attempted to turn attention away from criticism for delaying the release of his taxes and pointed his finger at Gingrich for being secretive -- calling on him to release the complete 1997 congressional ethics investigation.

Gingrich was charged with 84 ethics violations for the handling of his taxes and lying to the ethics committee. All but one of the charges were dropped and he was fined $300,000 by the House.

"You know it's going to get out before the general election. Sure, he ought to get it out now," Romney said.

Romney's Communications Director Gail Gitcho was more forceful. "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 rejected the call and said he already released one million pages of documents. In Orangeburg, SC today, Gingrich said, "Now, as soon as the governor reads 900 pages, I will be glad to chat with him. But in the interim, he could have today released his tax records so the voters of South Carolina could discover something."

Instead of releasing his returns, Romney highlighted his support from establishment Republicans. He announced the endorsement of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. The Romney campaign hopes the southern-state governor popular in Republican circles gives additional legitimacy to conservative voters. In addition, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley spent part of her day on the campaign trail with Romney and coming to his defense.

"The people of South Carolina are not talking about tax returns. They're not," Haley said referring to ongoing pressure by the media and Romney opponents to release them. Romney was booed at Thursday night's CNN debate for hedging on how many years worth of returns he would release.

Nothing seems to penetrate former House Speaker Newt Gingrich this week. He is riding a wave of good debate performances, positive polling numbers and round-the-clock media coverage. 

The former speaker's campaignwoke to a phony email sent to Republicans in South Carolina falsely saying his ex-wife claimed Gingrich forced her to have an abortion.

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Marianne Gingrich, his second wife, did not say that, but told ABC News in an interview that aired Thursday that Gingrich asked for an "open marriage" before they divorced. Gingrich denied the allegations and received a standing ovation at Thursday night's CNN debate when he blamed the media for hyping the story.

Coming off that strong debate performance, polls show Gingrich gaining ground in South Carolina. The latest, released today by Clemson University, shows Gingrich leading Romney 32 percent to 26 percent among likely Republican voters.

And the latestdaily tracking poll by Gallup shows Gingrich tightening the race nationally as he is only 10 points behind Romney, a dramatic shift from a 23 point gap on Monday.

Adding to Gingrich's strong final push in South Carolina, he received the endorsement of Michael Reagan, former President Ronald Reagan's son.

At left, CBSNews.com's Brian Montopoli breaks down a crazy week in the GOP nomination battle.

"Newt is our only chance in 2012 to contrast a Reagan conservative with Obama's European' styled socialism," he said.

The other two remaining candidate, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, hosted numerous town halls and meet-and-greets with voters.

Santorum is cautiously hoping to get a bump from new tally from the Iowa caucuses which showed him ahead. "Maybe the people of South Carolina look at this and say, wait a minute, this guy can win, this guy knocked off the giant and stopped the inevitable Romney," he said at Hudson's Smokehouse in Lexington, SC.

Paul, who has performed consistently well with a third place finish in Iowa and a second in New Hampshire, is polling third in South Carolina. He says he's in it for the long haul.

"Tomorrow is a very important day. it isn't the end, the total, its not the end of the campaign, its not the end of our efforts no matter what but it is very important," Paul said.

Paul received an unofficial endorsement from 18 year-old Landon Sanford, the son of former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford who left office amidst an adulterous scandal. Landon Sanford told CBS News that he supports Paul but he didn't register in time to vote.

Full coverage: Campaign 2012

  • Leigh Ann Caldwell On Twitter»

    Leigh Ann Caldwell is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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