POLITICS

Bachmann out, Santorum up and Gingrich peevish as New Hampshire primary looms

01/04/2012 04:21 EST | Updated 03/05/2012 05:12 EST
WASHINGTON - Political observers may pooh-pooh the Iowa caucuses as being over-hyped and technically insignificant, but the first contest in the presidential race changed the Republican landscape on Wednesday as Rick Santorum became a contender, Michele Bachmann dropped out and Newt Gingrich vowed revenge.

"I didn't tell you what the polls said that you wanted to hear," Bachmann, a Minnesota congresswoman who was briefly at the front of the pack in the topsy turvy Republican race, told a news conference in Des Moines on Wednesday.

"I didn't tell you what I knew to be false. I didn't try to spin you. Last night, the people of Iowa spoke, with a very clear voice. And so, I have decided to stand aside."

Gingrich, meantime, was in New Hampshire, stepping up his attacks on Mitt Romney, the "supposed front-runner." The former speaker of the House of Representatives blames Romney for sinking him with a series of negative ads that he believes resulted in a distant fourth-place finish in Iowa.

"I find it amazing the news media continues to say he's the most electable Republican when he can't even break out in his own party," said Gingrich, mocking Romney's paper-thin win in Iowa over Santorum, the newest Republican upstart.

"The fact is three out of four Republicans rejected" his campaign, Gingrich said. "Governor Romney is a moderate Massachusetts Republican to the left of the vast majority of Republicans."

A cranky Gingrich, indeed, promises to turn up the heat in the weeks to come in a Republican race that has not been lacking in drama. Given Gingrich's debate skills, another verbal showdown in New Hampshire on Saturday should be especially fiery as he takes aim at Romney.

The one-time speaker said Wednesday he'd spend the next phase of his campaign underscoring the distinctions between himself — "a consistent conservative" — and Romney, the man he has been sneeringly dismissing as a "Massachusetts moderate."

He then pointed to Romney's record as a conservative, saying he "ran to the left of Teddy Kennedy in 1994," was a moderate as Massachusetts governor, and instituted public health care that inspired so-called Obamacare.

"I expect it will be a very lively campaign," said Gingrich, apparently dropping his intention to run a positive one.

Santorum, meantime, a Roman Catholic who's deeply socially conservative, was comparing himself to fictional movie boxer Rocky Balboa. But he has a long haul in front of him trying to build on the momentum from Iowa, and has no hope of delivering a knockout punch to Romney in New Hampshire, anyway.

The so-called Granite State holds the race's first primary on Tuesday, and the state's Republicans are largely moderates who don't consider social issues particularly important.

Romney also has a commanding and steady lead in the polls in New Hampshire. A new survey released Wednesday by Suffolk University has Romney at 43 per cent, well ahead of his closest rivals, Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman, who have slipped.

Santorum, meantime, is gaining some ground at the expense of — wait for it — Gingrich, who praised the former Pennsylvania senator's "positive campaign" on Tuesday night.

"If Santorum surpasses Gingrich and knocks him into fifth place, it would be fatal for Gingrich," said David Paleologos, the director of Suffolk University's Political Research Center.

In South Carolina, however, it's an entirely different story, and the state where Gingrich is pinning his hopes. A roundup of recent polls by Real Clear Politics has Gingrich leading Romney 37 per cent to 21 heading into the primary on Jan. 21.

Santorum is in the bottom of the polls in the so-called Palmetto State, but may see his numbers start to climb thanks to his strong showing in Iowa. He plans to make a big push in South Carolina in the days to come, including visiting the state on Sunday, two days before the New Hampshire primary.

South Carolina primary voters are far more socially conservative than those in New Hampshire. And since 1980, the Republican candidate who's won the state has gone on to win the party's nomination.

Romney's hoping a divided field will hand him the win in South Carolina as the state's moderate primary voters back him. Texas Gov. Rick Perry's decision to remain in the race — and to travel to South Carolina early next week — is considered good news for Romney.

Back in New Hampshire, Sen. John McCain made an appearance with Romney on Wednesday to endorse one of his most bitter foes in the Republican race four years ago.

"The time has arrived for Republicans to choose a presidential nominee; a new standard-bearer who has the ability and determination to defeat President Obama," McCain said.

"Governor Romney offers us the common-sense reforms of government policy that are necessary to turn around our economy. His record of accomplishment in government and business are a testament to his leadership abilities."