GOP primary puts Romney in lead after Huntsman drops

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A splintered conservative vote in South Carolina could pave the way for Mitt Romney to win this week's pivotal primary - a contest due to have one fewer candidate after the withdrawal of moderate Jon Huntsman.

GOP race narrows as Huntsman drops

Huntsman, a former governor of Utah, withdrew from the race Monday.

Before news of Huntsman's decision broke, Romney's other rivals wrestled with the likelihood that they'll split the vote of South Carolina's social conservatives. "I think the only way that a Massachusetts moderate can get through South Carolina is if the vote is split," said Newt Gingrich, portraying himself as the lone conservative with a "realistic chance" of beating Romney in the first-in-the-South contest.

Polls show Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who struggled to a fourth-place finish in South Carolina during his 2008 White House run, with a lead heading into Saturday's vote. The state has a large population of evangelicals and other conservative Christians, and concerns arose four years ago about his Mormon faith.

But Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry all said Romney, after victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, continued to benefit from the fractured GOP field and the failure of social conservatives to fully coalesce around a single alternative.

Santorum said South Carolina is "not going to be the final issue" and spoke of the "need to get this eventually down to a conservative alternative" to Romney. "When we get it down to a two-person race, we have an excellent opportunity to win this race," said the former Pennsylvania senator, who won the endorsement of an influential group of social conservatives and evangelical leaders Saturday in Texas.

Perry, the Texas governor, said it was "our intention" to compete in the next contest, Florida's Jan. 31 primary, even if he finished last in South Carolina. Gingrich said he would "reassess" his candidacy if he lost in South Carolina and acknowledged that a Romney victory would mean "an enormous advantage going forward." The former House speaker appealed for the support of "every conservative who wants to have a conservative nominee."

"I hope every conservative will reach the conclusion that to vote for anybody but Gingrich is, in fact, to help Romney win the nomination," he said. The state's senior senator, Republican Lindsey Graham, started looking beyond Saturday's primary, saying, "If for some reason he's not derailed here and Mitt Romney wins South Carolina ... I think it should be over." He added, "I'd hope the party would rally around him if he did in fact win South Carolina."

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