South Carolina was always going to be the test for Romney. There's still a feeling he's not a good fit for them. That's what's playing out now. The question has always been, would all those voters consolidate behind a single candidate —Dante Scala, University of New Hampshire political science professor

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COLUMBIA, S. C.  — The race for the GOP presidential nomination veered into tawdry territory Thursday, a day already filled with unexpected twists and turns.

That an interview with an ex-wife of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich suggesting he sought an open marriage surfaced just before Saturday's Republican primary election came as no surprise to political observers. 

"You come to South Carolina, we drag out all the dirty laundry," Clemson University political science professor and pollster Dave Woodard said. "Then we try to find out some more. This race this year has been wicked."

The ABC News interview with Gingrich's second wife came on the heels of new results in the Iowa caucus that put Mitt Romney in second place and Texas Gov. Rick Perry dropping out of the race and endorsing Gingrich.

At Thursday night's Republican debate in Charleston, Gingrich said he was "appalled" CNN moderator John King asked about his ex-wife's allegations. He denied her claims and condemned "the destructive, vicious negative nature of much of the news media." 

Woodard said the state's voters expect to hear the worst about candidates and the 2012 presidential race is no exception.

"It's just kind of expected that if there's a campaign, it's going to come out," he said. "A lot's at stake and people are used to dirty campaigning, so that's what you get."

He blamed the role of the South Carolina primary in picking a president. The first-in-the south election is seen as the first real test of whether a Republican can connect with the party's conservative base.

But Woodard said there's no explaining South Carolinians' fascination with the underbelly of politics, something that's shown up in local and state elections over the years, too.

"Maybe there's something in the water," he said. "Whatever it is, it affects them."

Kris Visk, a retired first-grade teacher and former hospital chaplain from Spartanburg, shrugged off the suggestion that South Carolina politics were nasty.

"I think that southerners are very passionate about their politics, about their values and about their faith," Visk said. "It always digresses eventually."

The characterization did bother Phil Davis, a farmer from Greer. He said the state is traditionally seen as a place to test the staying power of candidates by getting tough.

"They think of it as a good thing here, I guess," Davis said. "But I don't think the people are like that at all. It's not what I feel or what a Christian would be excited about."

Woodard said there's been plenty of publicity about the seemingly non-stop negative ads filling the airwaves, funded by so-called "super political action committees" that are exempt from spending limits.

But voters here are also being inundated by automated telephone calls and mailing, Woodard said. Visitors to a recent Romney rally on an upstate college campus even found anonymous anti-Romney fliers on their cars.

As the frontrunner, Romney has been a target of much of the negative campaigning, particularly his time at Bain Capital, a firm he founded that attempted to turn around troubled companies, often resulting in the firing of employees. Perry has labeled Romney a "vulture capitalist," and Gingrich has accused his practices of being "exploitive."

Romney's personal wealth has also been a topic of criticism since he has refused to release his taxes but acknowledged paying lower rates than the average American worker on his investment earnings and dismissed $370,000 in speakers fees as not much money.

There is less talk of Romney's "flip-flopping" on issues key to conservatives, including abortion, a key issue in his first White House bid four years ago. But Romney's Mormon faith has not been a focus of critics this election, even among evangelical voters who don't see him as a fellow Christian.

"This is playing for keeps in a way that New Hampshire wasn't," University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala said. "It's stop Romney or else."

The new developments put new roadblocks in what had looked like a straight shot to the GOP nomination for Romney, who had been leading in the polls after his New Hampshire primary victory last week.

Woodard predicted Romney "is going to win comfortably" in South Carolina, based on several days of polling for the university's latest Palmetto Poll, set to be released Friday. He said that lead should hold despite Thursday's news or any amount of mudslinging.

Perry's endorsed Gingrich as "not perfect but who among us is" and said the nation needs not only a new president, but also "bold conservative leadership." Some conservative voters have been reluctant to back Romney, but have yet to rally around an alternative.

Earlier in the day, new results out of Iowa showed Romney lost the Jan. 3 presidential preference poll conducted in conjunction with the Iowa GOP caucuses by 34 votes.

Romney, who left Iowa with a narrow eight-vote win over Santorum, called the final outcome a "virtual tie" given that some votes are missing.

Woodard said the new results out of Iowa are "too little, too late," to give Santorum a boost in Saturday's primary. "Who cares," Woodard said. "I don't see (voters) saying, 'Oh, he won, that changes everything.' That's not going to happen."

The impact of Perry's endorsement of Gingrich remains to be seen. Both Woodard and Scala said endorsements usually don't translate into votes.

"Perry didn't have that many votes to pass on to Gingrich anyway," Scala said. What the endorsement does do is turn the election into a two-man race between Romney and Gingrich, he said.

"South Carolina was always going to be the test for Romney," Scala said, noting Romney's difficulty with conservatives in the GOP. "There's still a feeling he's not a good fit for them. That's what's playing out now. The question has always been, would all those voters consolidate behind a single candidate."

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