The four remaining GOP presidential candidates, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul face off at the CNN debate in Charleston.

Editor’s Note: James A. Barnes is former chief political correspondent at the National Journal and is part of CNN’s Election Night decision team. He is a contributor to The State of American Politics (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001) and has been a guest lecturer at Oxford University.

Story highlights

CNN asked 42 South Carolina GOP insiders about Saturday's primary

Surveys taken both before and after Rick Perry's withdrawal from race

Romney and Gingrich are in a close race, the group says, closer since Perry left

CNN  — 

The South Carolina Republican presidential primary is often a free-for-all, but this year’s contest probably sets a new standard for volatility. Not surprisingly, Palmetto State GOP insiders see a close finish in the primary Saturday between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, according to a CNN survey.

Less than 48 hours before voters would go to the polls, they were buffeted by a sudden announcement from Texas Gov. Rick Perry that he was withdrawing from the Republican presidential race and endorsing rival Gingrich. And as Perry was dropping out, the political world was buzzing with reports that Gingrich’s second wife, Marianne, said that her then-husband proposed an “open marriage” before they divorced. Then, a fiery Gingrich struck back at the opening of the CNN debate in Charleston, attacking the “liberal media” for bringing up the story in the first place.

“It’s like a darned soap opera,” said one South Carolina GOP insider. “Never seen things this fluid,” echoed another.

A CNN survey of 42 South Carolina GOP insiders—including Republican state legislators, state and local party officials, business and conservative interest group leaders, veterans of previous presidential primary campaigns, Palmetto State GOP political consultants, and other party activists—found a close race between the top two contenders. Three South Carolina GOP insiders thought the race would end in a dead heat between the two Republican contenders.

The insiders were asked: Who do you think will win the South Carolina primary?

Mitt Romney – 33%

Newt Gingrich – 31%

Rick Santorum – 19%

Ron Paul – 15%

Rick Perry – N/A

Other –2%

Compared to a similar sounding of GOP insiders earlier in the week before Perry withdrew, it appeared that Gingrich had gained the most momentum in the closing days of the race.

Before Perry dropped out:

Mitt Romney – 32%

Newt Gingrich – 25%

Rick Santorum – 18%

Ron Paul – 15%

Rick Perry – 8%

Other – 2%

CNN poll results

While Romney still edged Gingrich slightly in the minds of these insiders, the narrow margin and the ever-changing story lines mean Gingrich could still pull an upset Saturday.

“Romney’s supporters seem to be firmly behind him at this point, while Gingrich could still gain or lose support depending on how things shake out over the (final) days,” said one GOP insider. “For this reason, I’m still giving Romney the nod at this point.”

One major uncertainty hanging over the race is the impact of the controversial television interview that Gingrich’s second wife, Marianne, gave to ABC’s Nightline in which she said Gingrich had asked her to consider an arrangement that she described as an “open marriage.” In the CNN South Carolina debate on Thursday night, Gingrich denounced the media’s handling of the story and called the accusation “false.”

“Right now, I speculate that people voting for Newt may have accounted for his personal baggage in their decision making, without knowing the full extent of it,” said one South Carolina GOP insider. “However, requests for open marriage don’t play well with value-voters upstate, which seems to be the current heart of the Gingrich surge. I think this interview could diminish, or at least cap, his support with those voters.”

The CNN South Carolina GOP insiders were surveyed from the evening of Jan. 16 thru the morning of January 18, and again between January 19 and the morning of January 20. The survey was conducted over the internet; some interviews were conducted by phone. The South Carolina insiders were given anonymity for their individual answers in order to encourage candid responses. And while some insiders were aligned with one or another of the presidential campaigns, two-thirds said they had neither endorsed nor were they working for any candidate in the race. Here are the names of the participants in the survey: Eric Bedingfield, Peter Brown, Kevin Bryant, Luke Byars, Drea Byars, Chris Carino, Phillip Cease, Alan Clemmons, Chad Connelley, Wesley Donehue, Shannon Erickson, Justin Evans, Scott Farmer, Chip Felkel, Becky Fleming, Douglas Ford, Greg Foster, Mark Harmon, Wes Hayes, Allen Klump, Scott Malyerck, Janice McCord, Joe McKeown, Drew McKissick, Ed McMullen, Matt Moore, Matthew Nichols, Mark Nix, Ralph Norman, Randy Page, Sunny Philips, Mike Pitts, Tommy Pope, Richard Quinn, Jay W. Ragley, George Ramsey, Scott Richardson, Oran P. Smith, Bob Taylor, Adam Temple, Taylor Tompkins, Trey Walker, Chad Walldorf, Ellen Weaver, Joe Wilson, Barry Wynn, Robert Yerger.