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South Carolina debate: Gingrich and Romney face each other - and their baggage

Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich are very close in South Carolina polling. Going into Thursday night's four-man debate, the two front-runners each have new personal issues facing them.

By Staff writer / January 19, 2012

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich talk at the end of the South Carolina Republican presidential candidate debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Monday, Jan. 16, 2012.

Charles Dharapak/AP

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Thursday night's GOP presidential debate in South Carolina sees a candidate line-up whittled down to just four contestants. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is history, having dropped out early in the day and thrown his unqualified support to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

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But attention will be focused on the two front-runners with the most to win – or lose – in a campaign that has become increasingly divisive as it accelerates through major states toward Super Tuesday and beyond.

Both Mr. Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney have new personal issues to deal with.

For Mr. Romney, it’s the impression that he belongs to what Occupy Wall Streeters call the “1 percent” – wealthy beyond the dreams of most Americans and clueless about what those Americans' lives are like.

He’s acknowledged that his tax rate likely is a relatively low 15 percent, some of his investments are parked in a Cayman Islands tax haven, and he seems to think that earning nearly $400,000 a year just in speaking fees is “not very much.” Under pressure from supporters like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (not to mention Democrats), Romney now seems likely to make public his tax returns.

For Gingrich, it’s renewed questions of character – specifically, assertions by his second wife in interviews (one of which is to be aired just after Thursday night's debate) that the former speaker asked for an “open marriage” in order to continue an affair with the congressional staffer who later became his third wife.

Even though it might be a “he said, she said” story, any reminder of Gingrich’s acknowledged infidelities and multiple marriages can’t be helpful in a state and party where evangelical Christians are prominent and most likely primary voters describe themselves as socially conservative.

Gingrich backers hope that contrition and redemption dominate that story line.

"Newt is not perfect but who among us is?" Perry said at his withdrawal announcement Thursday morning. "There is forgiveness for those who seek God."

Meanwhile, establishment Republicans are firing back at Gingrich’s blasts at Romney.

His criticisms of the former governor regarding his years in the private sector reorganizing businesses are “dangerous,” amounting to “talking points straight out of Barack Obama's campaign playbook,” warns Sen. John McCain, who headed the Republican ticket in 2008 and who recently endorsed Romney.

Former New Hampshire governor and White House chief of staff John H. Sununu warns of an “October surprise” if Gingrich is nominated and then faces new revelations about the ethics committee probe that led to the end of his House speakership.

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