Mitt Romney campaigns at Tommy's Country Ham House in Greenville,… (Matt Roarke / Associated…)
Reporting from Greenville, S.C. — Braced for a threatened loss to Newt Gingrich in today’s South Carolina primary, Mitt Romney made a final push to divert attention from questions about his tax returns by trying to raise new doubts about the former House speaker’s ethics.
The former Massachusetts governor closed his South Carolina campaign with a stark recognition that prospects for effectively sealing the Republican presidential nomination today was now all but nil after a week of setbacks.
“We’d like to win here, of course, but we’ve got a long way to go!” Romney shouted to a breakfast crowd packed into Tommy’s Country Ham House. “So come join us in Florida, in Nevada, Michigan, Colorado.”
It was fitting that the crowd at Tommy's was split between supporters of both Romney and Gingrich, whose campaigns had each announced simultaneous stops at the popular candidate road stop.
Romney averted the face-to-face clash by showing up almost an hour early. By the time Gingrich showed up, Romney's bus had backed out of the parking lot, and he was on the road for an election night party in Columbia, his entourage beset by a mood that was, at best, apprehensive.
Final polls in South Carolina suggested Gingrich had erased Romney’s double-digit lead and even surpassed him after a brutal 10 days of scorching TV ads, dramatic debates and rivals Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman Jr. bowing out of the race.
“That’s the roller coaster of what’s been this entire election,” South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley told reporters asking about Romney’s drop in the polls as she and the candidate paid a visit to his Greenville headquarters. “I feel very good about what’s happened, and I will tell you: The rocky part of things comes with debates, it comes with ads, it comes with people saying things.”
Meeting with volunteers inside, Haley, unprompted, brought up Romney's tax returns. Romney has agreed to release some in April but rejected calls from Gingrich and others to make his tax returns public before the South Carolina vote.
Moments later, Romney opened a new assault on Gingrich’s ethics.
“Speaker Gingrich worked for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac,” he told his volunteers. “By the way, didn't he say he was going to release information about his relationship there? Let's see what report he wrote for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. What the conclusions were and what the contract looked like. I thought he said he was going to do that. And let's have him describe his relationships in Washington.”
Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond responded by turning the spotlight back on Romney.
“Hey Mitt, how those income taxes coming along?” Hammond asked in an email.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Romney and Gingrich supporters were jostling for space at Tommy’s. When Romney arrived, his supporters cheered, and Gingrich’s kept quiet.
“My goodness gracious, wow,” shouted Romney, standing on a chair. “How many people have already voted?”
“If we think that we need a Washington insider to run Washington, there are a lot of people to choose from!” he hollered as supporters waved signs. “But I’m the only guy who spent his life in the real world. I’m going to fight to put America back to work.”
“Thank you for paying for our breakfast!” Carolyn Parsons, 85, called out to Romney over the cheers.
“We’re happy to pay for breakfast,” Romney responded. “But there’s no free lunch.”
The scene was chaotic as a media scrum followed Romney around the restaurant. Romney stepped onto a table to climb to the other side. His wife, Ann, squeezed through the crowd to make an early exit.
“Someone’s passed out in there,” she told those nearby as she left.
Among the Gingrich supporters politely looking on was Suzanne O’Daniel, a Greenville woman wearing a “We the People” t-shirt.
“I want somebody who’s going to speak their mind and just not back down,” she said.
A few minutes later, she got Romney to sign the back of her “Newt 2012” sign.