Rivals hope to stop Romney momentum at debate

MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina Mon Jan 16, 2012 6:55pm EST

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney shakes hands with supporters during a campaign stop at the American Legion Post in Sumpter, South Carolina, January 14, 2012. REUTERS/Chris Keane

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney shakes hands with supporters during a campaign stop at the American Legion Post in Sumpter, South Carolina, January 14, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Chris Keane

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MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina (Reuters) - A newly trimmed field of five Republican presidential hopefuls meets on Monday in a South Carolina debate that gives front-runner Mitt Romney's rivals one of their final chances to derail his growing momentum.

The debate comes hours after former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman dropped out of the 2012 Republican race and endorsed Romney, bolstering the former Massachusetts governor's drive for his party's nomination. Romney won the first two state nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire this month.

It also provides Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich a prominent stage for their battle to become the top conservative alternative to the more moderate Romney.

Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, gained valuable backing in that effort over the weekend when a group of 150 religious and social conservative leaders agreed to coalesce behind his candidacy in an effort to stop Romney.

The debate is the first of two this week in South Carolina, where a Romney win in Saturday's primary could put him on an almost certain path to clinching the right to challenge President Barack Obama in November's election.

Polls show Romney with a solid lead in South Carolina over Gingrich, the former U.S. House of Representatives speaker, heading into the debate. Another debate will be held in Charleston on Thursday, less than 48 hours before South Carolina Republicans start to vote.

"At this point, Romney just has to remind people that he is the one who can take on Obama and win in November," Republican consultant Rich Galen said. "He can't let the other guys get under his skin."

Romney, Gingrich, Santorum, Texas Governor Rick Perry and U.S. Representative Ron Paul will meet in Monday's two-hour debate at 9 p.m. EST (0200 GMT Tuesday) in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

The last Republican debates were back-to-back meetings within 12 hours of each other before the New Hampshire primary, which Romney won easily after narrowly winning in Iowa.

Those debates featured several sharp attacks on Romney for his work at a private equity group that critics say plundered companies and slashed jobs, but his Republican rivals have eased off those criticisms in recent days.

South Carolina's unemployment rate is higher than the national average of 8.5 percent, making jobs and unemployment one of the most prominent topics expected to be tackled in the debate.

Santorum, Gingrich and Perry have pursued South Carolina's large bloc of evangelical and social conservative voters, who have been split here, as they were in Iowa.

Santorum, who came in second in Iowa, and Gingrich have argued they are the most electable conservatives, but neither have shown signs in polls yet that they are breaking through in South Carolina, which could be the last chance to stop Romney.

The next battleground after South Carolina will be Florida on January 31, a huge and diverse state where Romney's financial and organizational advantages would make him hard to stop.

"Romney seems to be pulling away if the polls are to be believed," Galen said. "But he can't put it on cruise control yet."

(Editing by Paul Simao)

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Comments (11)
NewsDebbie wrote:
I don’t see the point of any more GOP debates. Everyone knows what the candidates stand for. The problem is Republicans really don’t like what they’ve been presented with as candidates. Now its the big money (PACs = free speech) that are shoving Romney down everyones throats. If Romney is the nominee I will hold my nose and vote for Obama. To vote for Romney is to return to GWBush policies which were what got America in the mess we are in. I don’t care for Obama but he is better than a return to GWBush.

Jan 16, 2012 4:36pm EST  --  Report as abuse
BBJJ wrote:
As a lifelong Republican I cannot vote for Romney with a clear conscience. I live in an area where a religious cult, Scientology, thrives. They are very similar to Mormons. In addition Romney implemented mandatory health care insurance legislation in Massachusetts. Health care insurance is a personal choice where one bets against ones own health. Those that win are sickly. During my entire life I’ve chosen to pay cash for health care so that I don’t subsidize those who choose a less than healthy lifestyle.

The bottom line is that if Romney (an Obama look alike) is the candidate I will abstain from voting. I will never vote for Obama or Romney.

Jan 16, 2012 6:01pm EST  --  Report as abuse
xyz2055 wrote:
Maybe they’ll finally bring out the circus clowns and it will be hosted by Chuck Barris?

Jan 16, 2012 6:02pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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