GILBERT, S.C. - Mitt Romney described the closing gap in the polls between him and former House speaker Newt Gingrich as "exciting," acknowledging today that his campaign is "battling hard" to finish strong in Saturday's South Carolina primary.
"I said from the very beginning South Carolina is an uphill battle for a guy from Massachusetts. I knew that. We're battling hard," Romney said during a news conference with reporters after a rally on a tree farm. "The fact is, right now, it looks like it's neck and neck. That's a good spot to be in. I'm pretty pleased and pretty proud about the success of our effort."
Asked why he considers South Carolina an "uphill battle," Romney recalled his 2008 finish in the state and the proximity of Gingrich's home state of Georgia. "Well, just last time around I came in No. 4," Romney said. "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.
"So I knew that we'd have a long, long road ahead of us," he said, "And, frankly, to be in a neck-and-neck race at this last moment is kind of exciting."
The latest national daily Gallup poll shows a 10-point lead for Romney over Gingrich, but also shows that Romney's lead has decreased significantly in one week. Romney led Gingrich 37-13 last week. Romney's now at 30 and Gingrich with 20. The latest South Carolina polls also put Romney at a 10-point lead over Gingrich.
"We have a long process ahead of us, 1,150 delegates to get," Romney said. "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. But I don't know what the numbers will be. I'm pretty confident, cautiously optimistic."
Romney repeated that he plans to release his tax returns in April. And when asked why he thinks people are so interested in the documents, he suggested that the interest was more among members of the media and Democrats than the voters. He also acknowledged a level of imperfection when it came to his handling of the barrage of questions about the returns.
"I can't possibly tell you that everything I do in the campaign is perfect," he said.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley chimed in, saying that she thinks people should be focusing more on Gingrich's ethics reports than on Romney's tax returns.
"The people of South Carolina are not talking about tax returns," Haley said. "They're not. They're talking about jobs, spending, and the economy and, in all honesty, I've heard more people wondering why you guys aren't asking about ethics reports and ethics problems with the Gingrich campaign. Nobody's talking about tax returns."
Romney said today that he would like to see Gingrich release the ethics report, one day after some of his chief surrogates suggested the same.
"Of course, he should, of course, he should," Romney said of Gingrich's releasing the documents. "One of the issues that was raised last night by Rick Santorum was the fact that he was pushed out of the House by his fellow members. I think over 80 percent of Republican congressmen voted to reprimand the speaker of the House; first time in history. And there are - Nancy Pelosi has the full record of that ethics investigation.
"You know it's going to get out before the general election. Sure, he ought to get it out now."
While portions of the public ethics committee report have already been made public, Gingrich mentioned last year that he had turned "one million pages of material" over during the investigation, which are the documents to which Romney was referring today, according to a campaign spokeswoman.