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Is Mitt Romney's Presidential Campaign About to Go South?

Look out, GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney could be on the verge of losing two Republican primaries in the space of a single week.
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Look out, GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney could be on the verge of losing two Republican primaries in the space of a single week. And if he does, his once steady march toward the Republican nomination could be abruptly halted, leaving the GOP race unexpectedly up for grabs.

A final tally of the balloting from the Iowa caucuses held on January 3 appears to show that Rick Santorum, not Romney, won that contest, by as much as 40 votes, not the 8-vote margin originally reported for Romney. Romney used his surprise Iowa win as a springboard to a commanding victory in New Hampshire on January 11. No non-incumbent GOP presidential candidate has ever won the first two GOP primaries, which seemed to confirm Romney's growing momentum.

Meanwhile, polls in South Carolina show Newt Gingrich surging fast, reversing the large double-digit lead Romney enjoyed in the Palmetto State only several days ago. Gingrich's attacks on Romney's private sector experience may not be convincing many voters, but his rabble-rousing debate performance two nights ago, and Romney's rather shaky one, appears to be yielding huge dividends in a state whose primary has long been considered the GOP's bellwether contest.

In fact, while two South Carolina primary polls still have Gingrich trailing by 10 points, three new polls released just today show Gingrich ahead of Romney by 3-5 points. And the very latest national poll also shows Gingrich trailing Romney by just by 3 points, which means the two men are in a statistical dead heat.

And that's not all. Romney suffered another blow Thursday morning when Texas governor Rick Perry dropped out of the race -- then turned around and heartily endorsed Gingrich. That endorsement came on the heels of a statement by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin that if she were a South Carolina voter, she would cast her ballot for Gingrich. Those endorsements, plus tonight's final South Carolina debate, are likely to add substantially to Newt's growing momentum.

A confirmed loss by Romney in Iowa, however small, and a come-from-behind Gingrich victory in South Carolina on Saturday, could completely alter the narrative of the GOP race, which in recent days had suggested that Romney's was becoming all-but-invincible. Now, it appears, that Romney's as vulnerable as ever, and that Gingrich, though badly bloodied from his rival's Super PAC attacks in Iowa and New Hampshire, has successfully rebounded, using the very same scorched earth tactics on Romney to surge back into contention.

A key factor in the Gingrich rebound was the decision by a prominent Nevada casino owner, Sheldon Adelson, to donate $5 million to Gingrich's Super PAC to wage his South Carolina campaign. Gingrich originally requested $20 million, and he may well get the balance if he scores a big win on Saturday. And if that happens, all bets are off in the next GOP primary in Florida scheduled for January 31.

In Florida, Romney currently holds a 20-point lead over his rivals, and one poll even has Gingrich slipping to third behind Santorum. But these polls, like those conducted earlier in South Carolina, were fielded before Gingrich's latest surge. If Gingrich wins or runs competitively in South Carolina, expect the race in Florida to tighten, too. There are also growing rumors that Palin, who's wildly popular with Republicans in Florida, and who's rallied the faithful there as recently as October, might formally endorse Gingrich before the month is out.

If so, Romney's days as GOP front-runner -- let alone party "heir apparent" -- may well be numbered.

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