All signs are pointing to a close finish in South Carolina, where GOP presidential primary voters will weigh in Saturday and experts say it's really a battle between front-runner and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and surging former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. It's also a battle – finally – between the hearts and minds of Republican voters.
As displayed during a pair of debates this week, Gingrich brings the fire many crave and hope will be channeled en route to defeating President Barack Obama. But it's Romney's squeaky clean family life and steady Mr. Fix-It resume that has made him the winner – or near winner – in the country's first two contests.
"I've been looking at Gingrich for two decades and personally, I wouldn't trust where he is on any issue for longer than a week," says Tony Fratto, managing partner at Hamilton Place Strategies and a Bush administration official who also worked on the Bush-Cheney campaign.
"But in terms of being able to speak passionately about things, he's able to do that. He's got a lot of experience doing it, and I think people really do want to see some of that from Romney before they will be willing to follow him," he says.
Fratto praises Romney's near-flawless campaign but highlights the apparent disconnect that has prevented him from running away with the nomination.
"With the exception of this week with the question of his taxes, it is really hard to look at the Romney campaign over the last six months and say that they've done anything wrong," he says. "But people have got to see something real and authentic from Romney, where he's speaking from his gut and people just haven't seen that yet."
As for Gingrich, Fratto says what you see is what you get and that's not likely to change.
"If you've gone three or four days without an episode of weirdness surrounding the Gingrich campaign, just stick around for another day or two, because something new will pop up. This is what you get with Gingrich," he says. "Could anybody have been predicting that we would be talking about open marriages involving Newt Gingrich in South Carolina? It's just weird. You're not going to get this from Romney."
Ron Bonjean, a D.C.-based GOP consultant, says the top issues in voters' minds in South Carolina are personal finances and character. While Gingrich has been taking heat for his second ex-wife's account that he requested an open marriage, he has released his most recent income tax return, something the wholesome Romney has failed to do.
"These issues are placing Romney and Gingrich on defense and putting their opponents on offense," he says. "They are issues that voters are going to think about going into the booth on Saturday and how each is responding is also very important."
Bonjean says Romney has allowed the narrative to get away from him, and he needs to wrestle back control if he wants to wrap up the nomination.
"As opposed to playing daily defense on his taxes and IRA shelters and all those things that are coming out slowly, he needs to come out in front of that fast," he says.
Both agree that unless someone other than Romney wins in South Carolina, he's effectively locked up the GOP nomination.
"This week, Gingrich has been telling someone who actually won a primary that he should get out of the race, which is kind of bizarre, but you can't go into Florida not having won anything. You just can't," Fratto says. "This campaign is over if Gingrich fails to win."
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