Surging Republican White House hopeful Newt Gingrich on Thursday won the backing of a rival quitting the race, boosting his hopes of overtaking embattled frontrunner Mitt Romney.
Texas Governor Rick Perry's decision to drop out and endorse the former House speaker had the potential to turn the fight for the nomination, long thought to be Romney's to lose, on its head two days before this state's key primary.
Perry, whose campaign collapsed under the weight of a series of gaffes after he briefly led the pack, praised Gingrich as "a conservative visionary who can transform our country" if he wins the White House in November elections.
Romney, a former governor of liberal Massachusetts and multi-millionaire investor, has largely benefited from seeing conservative voters fractured among several candidates, including Gingrich, Perry and former senator Rick Santorum.
But public opinion polls have repeatedly shown that Romney, the favorite of the party's national establishment, has less support than his rivals do when taken together -- so any moves to unite their backers could threaten him.
It was unclear whether Gingrich, running in second place here and sure to gun for Romney in a televised debate late Thursday, would be able to sustain his momentum and defeat the frontrunner's more organized, better-funded campaign.
"Terrific guy, terrific conservative," Romney said when asked about Perry. "We're going to miss him on stage tonight."
But Romney suffered another blow when Iowa's Republican Party reversed itself and said he did not win the heartland state's first-in-the-nation caucuses, and in fact trailed Santorum in an uncertain tally marred by missing ballots.
"The narrative that Governor Romney and the media have been touting of 'inevitability' has been destroyed," said the Christian conservative former senator's campaign communications director, Hogan Gidley.
"Conservatives can now see and believe they don't have to settle for Romney, the establishment's moderate candidate," he said in a statement after the partial results showed Santorum up by roughly three dozen votes.
The longtime frontrunner, who had repeatedly invoked his narrow Iowa victory as a sign of his overall political strength, insisted in a written statement that the caucuses had ended in "a virtual tie."
The two blows added to Romney's woes -- including pressure to release his tax filings and charges he built his vast fortune while firing workers -- even as the latest polls showed his once double-digit lead over Gingrich cut in half.
In response, the former governor sharply escalated his attacks on the former speaker, with allies painting Gingrich as dangerously erratic and the candidate mocking his "fantasy land" claims of creating jobs during his time in Congress.
Jobs "don't come because of Washington, they come in some cases in spite of Washington," Romney said at a sparsely attended rally at his campaign headquarters here.
Republican House Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King warned Gingrich would pose a threat to the Republican party's chances of recapturing the White House if he's the nominee, and to the world if he's elected.
"If he were elected president, to me the whole country would be in danger," King said on a Romney campaign conference call.
At a campaign event shortly after Perry's announcement, Gingrich told a crowd he was "very honored and very humbled" to have the governor's endorsement.
But Gingrich faced trouble on another front as his second ex-wife, Marianne, said in an interview with ABC television that he had sought an "open marriage" after carrying on a six-year affair with an aide he later married.
Asked on NBC television about the interview, Gingrich, who has been married three times, said he would not criticize his ex-wife but blasted the expose as a "completely wrong" take on private family matters "more than a decade old."
The former lawmaker's personal failings have long been known, but the marital issue could still hurt him among South Carolina's Christian conservatives, a key voting bloc here.
"Newt is not perfect, but who among us is?" Perry said as he left the race. "The fact is, there is forgiveness for those who seek God, and I believe in the power of redemption, for it is a central tenet of my Christian faith."
Veteran Representative Ron Paul, a small-government champion who opposed overseas military interventions, was also gunning for a strong finish in South Carolina amid polls showing him running in fourth place behind Santorum.
Romney aides played down Perry's endorsement of Gingrich, predicting that voters drawn to his anti-Washington message would side with the former Massachusetts governor.
Source: AFP American Edition