Newt Gingrich’s 13-point victory over Mitt Romney in South Carolina on Saturday topped off the wildest week in the Republican presidential race to date. Only four candidates remain. Three of them have won a contest. As Karl Rove said on Fox News after the results were announced, “we are in unchartered territory.” This campaign isn’t ending anytime soon and neither is its unpredictability.
Mitt Romney’s hopes of sealing the nomination early were dashed by Gingrich on Saturday. Most observers agreed, as did Gingrich, that this race was essentially over if Romney won, as polls through much of the week indicated he would. Gingrich surged at the end and won a surprisingly decisive victory with 40.4%. Romney came in second with 27.8%. Rick Santorum was in third place with 17% and Ron Paul came in last with 13%.
It is often noted that South Carolina has chosen the eventual winner of the Republican nomination each time since 1980. However, Karl Rove noted that the victor always won either Iowa or New Hampshire before South Carolina. There is no precedent for where the race stands today.
Newt Gingrich sounded like a general election candidate in his victory speech. With supporters chanting “Newt Can Win,” he said he could draw the sharpest contrast with President Obama and would base his campaign on American exceptionalism and bringing sweeping change to the federal government. He complimented each of his rivals. He said that Romney is hard-working, successful and did a great job overseeing the Olympics. He praised Rick Santorum for leading the charge against Iran and his social conservatism and fight for the manufacturing sector. Gingrich said that he “strongly supports” Ron Paul on the Federal Reserve, inflation and financial matters.
Mitt Romney was more aggressive in his concession speech. Trying to contrast himself with Gingrich, he said that the Republican Party cannot have a nominee who, like President Obama, never ran a business or a state. He spent a significant amount of time accusing Gingrich of criticizing capitalism. “Those who pick up the weapons of the left today will see them used against us tomorrow,” Romney said.
Rick Santorum and Ron Paul gave their typical addresses Saturday night. Santorum was much more aggressive in his appearance on Fox News right after his speech. He said that he embodies the best of Gingrich and Romney without their flaws, describing the former as an “erratic conservative” and the latter as a “Massachusetts moderate.” He said that he’s the most electable principled conservative and downplayed the South Carolina results. Santorum said that he “planted his flag” in Iowa and won and Romney and Gingrich did the same in New Hampshire and South Carolina. The real test will come when the fight is on “neutral” ground, he argued.
The candidates are now battling hard for Florida. There have been no polls released out of the state since the South Carolina primary took place, but Mitt Romney led by an average of 18.5% there as of this weekend. The contest after Florida is the Nevada caucus on February 4, where Romney is the heavy favorite. Two victories in a row would allow Romney to regain his footing after this weekend’s loss.