Nightly News   |  January 20, 2012

Down to the wire: the battle for South Carolina

Mitt Romney remained optimistic while Newt Gingrich capitalized on his fiery performance in Thursday’s debate. NBC’s Peter Alexander reports.

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>>> and good evening tonight from florida. the next battleground state is already wild here, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. the storyline tonight is all about tomorrow's vote in the first of the south primaries in south carolina . specifically, a late last-minute surge by newt gingrich that could, at minimum, delay the best-laid plans of the romney campaign. we have it all covered for you tonight. we are going to begin with nbc's peter alexander in north charleston this evening to start our coverage.

>> reporter: brian, good evening to you. hours before the first votes are cast in this state the romney campaign is trying to limit expectations here. governor romney telling nbc news a short time ago it's always been a, quote, uphill battle in this state. this as newt gingrich appears to have much of the momentum. after a stormy week, undoubtedly the toughest of his entire campaign, mitt romney tried to rally supporters ahead of tomorrow's primary.

>> thank you, governor. wow, there comes the rain. oh, my goodness. you guys are great.

>> reporter: now surging in south carolina , newt gingrich is trying to capitalize on his fiery performance in last night's debate.

>> tomorrow is going to be a very, very important day.

>> reporter: gingrich quickly set the tone of the debate, blasting the media for focusing on his second wife's claim he wanted to continue his affair with then-mistress, now wife callista.

>> he was asking to have an open marriage and i refused.

>> i am appalled you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that. the story is false. every personal friend i have who knew us in that period says the story is false.

>> reporter: rick santorum argued that the former house speaker 's temperament and outspoken manner are vulnerables.

>> grandiostiy has never been a problem with newt gingrich . that's one of the issues here.

>> i think grandiose thoughts. this is a grandiose country of big people doing big things and we need leadership prepared to take on big projects.

>> reporter: santorum accused romney and gingrich of straying from conservative ideals.

>> i've been tonighting for health reform , private sector bottom up the way america works best for 20 years. these two guys were playing footsies with the left.

>> when will you release your tax returns specifically?

>> an hour ago.

>> reporter: the focus on romney 's personal wealth intensified as gingrich released his tax returns just before the debate. romney waivered when asked if he could follow his father and release several years of tax returns .

>> maybe. i don't know how many years i'll release. i'll take a look at what our documents are.

>> reporter: ron paul is still holding steady in this race. but last night's struggle to assert his libertarian message. but fwrabing the spotlight this afternoon, former candidate hermain cain and comedian stephen colbert who ridiculed the entire republican field.

>> the only difference between mitt romney and a statue of mitt romney is that the statue never changes its position.

>> reporter: also today, the campaign in this state famous for nasty primaries turned ugly with an e-mail sent out under gingrich 's name saying that he insisted his ex-wife have an abortion. tonight the gingrich campaign says that was false.

>> peter, we keep saying it, another wild day in this campaign. peter alexander starting us off from north charleston tonight.