Mitt Romney remained optimistic while Newt Gingrich capitalized on his fiery performance in Thursday's debate. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.
GILBERT, SC -- Mitt Romney said Friday he was "cautiously optimistic" he could still pull out a win in South Carolina's primary, where he's working to withstand a last minute surge by Newt Gingrich.
Romney, who finished fourth in the 2008 primary, has watched Gingrich chip away at his lead in polls here over the course of the week. Voters head to the polls tomorrow to cast their ballots in the first-in-the-south primary.
"I sure would like to win South Carolina, but I know that if those polls were right, regardless of who gets the final number, we’re both going to get a lot of delegates. I want as many delegates as I can get -- I want the most delegates coming out of South Carolina," Romney told reporters gathered for a press conference. "But I don’t know what the numbers will be. I’m pretty confident, cautiously optimistic."
The former Massachusetts governor also acknowledged the tightening of the race, which has twisted and turned dramatically in the last 24 hours.
"I think I said from the very beginning South Carolina is an uphill battle for a guy from Massachusetts. I knew that. We're battling hard. The fact is right now it looks like its neck and neck that's a good spot to be in. I'm pretty pleased and pretty proud about the success of our effort," Romney said.
Romney campaign staffers and surrogates began dialing back expectations of a win in South Carolina in the spin room following last night's debate, with several members of the Romney camp reminding reporters of Romney's distant fourth place finish here in 2008. Romney himself seemed to be trying to lower expectations at times during today's press conference.
"Well just last time around I came in number four. And, and so this time I realized that I had a lot of ground to make up. And speaker Gingrich is from a neighboring state, well-known, popular in the state," Romney said. "I knew that we’d have a long, long road ahead of us. And frankly to be in a neck and neck race at this last moment is, is kind of exciting.
Romney, who just days ago looked likely to clinch a third straight primary win here has seen his Iowa victory morphed into a loss to Santorum after the release of certified results in that contest, and his South Carolina lead greatly strained by Gingrich's latest surge. Both of those developments could extend a GOP primary in which states are awarding delegates proportionally for the first time, a fact Romney lamented this afternoon.
"You know, I wish it were a winner-take-all state. I wish we had all winner take all states, but we don’t. And so it’s going to be a longer process than, perhaps, than that would’ve suggested. But you know, it looks like we’re going to get real support into South Carolina and then we go into Florida.," Romney said. "You know, I’m still hoping and planning to win here. And I’m sure the Speaker feels the same way I do. But we’re going to go on for a long race and I think I’ve got the staying power and a, and a message that I believe connects with people."
After facing another series of questions about his tax returns last night, Romney said again today he would release those documents in April -- and defended his handling of the issue by saying he had not anticipated the level of interest in his returns, which he said provided less information than financial disclosure forms he had already filed.
"I know you guys do and the Democrats would like to and my opponents would like to, but in order for me to defeat President Obama I have to do what I think is the absolute right way to run a campaign and provide information, consistent with the public interest. And I know there is interest and so I have indicated that I will release my tax returns," Romney said. "I'll do so when they are prepared. Which would be April, first middle part of April, and then they’ll all come out at one time. It'll be more than one year, I don’t know the exact number, but people can take a look at it."
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who appeared with Romney at his rainy outdoor rally and flanked him at the press conference, also defended Romney's handling of the tax returns, saying they were effectively a non-issue.
"The people of South Carolina are not talking about tax returns. They're not. They're talking about jobs, spending, and the economy," Haley said. "They want to know how you're gonna bring jobs. So, that's me talking as the governor of South Carolina, talking to my people -- everybody knows someone without a job. Everybody is touched by somebody that doesn't have a job. That's what they care about. They don't care about tax returns."