Gingrich, Perry, Santorum News Rocks GOP Campaign

Non-stop Republican presidential race news rocks primary state.

By + More

Even those suffering from GOP presidential race fatigue must admit today's revelations have revived interest in the pending South Carolina contest, teeing up a must-see CNN debate at 9 tonight.

"We like it dirty down here in South Carolina, so we're not surprised," says David Woodard, political science professor at Clemson University and former GOP consultant in South Carolina.

Let's re-cap the news made so far today.

First, Texas Gov. Rick Perry's decision to drop out ahead of the vote on Saturday and before tonight's debate may not have a huge impact--he was only polling at about 5 percent--but the timing caught some off guard.

[Read: 4 economic snafus that sank Rick Perry.]

But that announcement was quickly overshadowed by other news on the "family values" front. In an interview with ABC News set to air tonight, Marianne Gingrich, second ex-wife of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, claims that he wanted an "open marriage" with her to accommodate his relationship with now-wife Callista. This was, according to other interviews she has now granted, at the same time he was making speeches about the importance of family values.

And finally, a years-old story about Karen Santorum, wife of former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, concerning an alleged relationship she had with a doctor many years her senior who performed abortions also re-emerged. This scandal, first written about in 2005, was revived in the form of newsletters placed on car windshields in South Carolina by anti-abortion activists steering voters not to support Santorum, though he himself is opposed to abortion in all cases, even incest and rape.

So what's it all mean?

Tony Fratto, managing partner at Hamilton Place Strategies and a Bush administration official who also worked on the Bush-Cheney campaign, says some of today's news stories matter more than others.

"The Karen Santorum story is completely irrelevant," he says. "Who a 22-year-old girl dated … does anybody want to be held to that standard? The way an adult in a position of very high responsibility did and the way he conducted his life is a completely different story."

Matt Moore, executive director of the South Carolina Republican Party, says tonight's debate is the last chance for candidates to make their cases before voters, many of whom are still undecided.

[Check out the latest political cartoons.]

"It's going to be a very heated race on Saturday, and one misstep or one good point can quite honestly change this race," he says. But he adds that he's not convinced the dirty details talked about today will be changing the dynamic.

"Voters in South Carolina are very wary of these last-minute attacks," Moore says. "A lot of people have made up their minds. There certainly are a lot of undecideds, but I don't think this is the kind of issue that they are looking to make up their minds on."

Woodard agrees, and says South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley overcame the allegations of marital affairs made against her during her gubernatorial campaign. And that followed the behavior of Gov. Mark Sanford, who admitted to his affair with an Argentine woman during his tenure.

"In the past, it hasn't been that big a deal," he says. "My guess is there's a soaking-in effect after things break out. It takes people a while to digest; I don't think we have enough time for that to have a lot of effect."

However, Woodard says former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney appeared to be the front-runner in South Carolina despite attempts by social conservatives to find an alternative to him.

[See pictures of the 2012 GOP candidates.]

"They're making Romney look good," he says. "And it seems like, to me, if you want to say, 'A plague on both your houses,' he might be the beneficiary of it."

Woodard also throws water on the idea that the news out of Iowa--that also broke today--that Santorum actually defeated Romney there will give him the push he needs to compete.

"He's a family guy and, after this, I don't know how he can keep going. He's been running on a shoestring anyway, and I just don't see how he can keep going, frankly," he says of the anti-abortion attack on Santorum's wife.