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.
Gingrich says that a victory for him in Florida would be a “knockout punch” to Romney. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush says he will not endorse a candidate. On the other hand, there is speculation about endorsements for Gingrich from Congressman Allen West, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Senator Marco Rubio. None of the three have confirmed that they will endorse someone.
Gingrich hopes that a strong showing in Florida will push Rick Santorum to drop out, which would make him the frontrunner. The latest Gallup poll shows Romney leading nationally with 30%. Gingrich is at 25%, Ron Paul is at 13% and Santorum is at 12%. If Santorum were to withdraw and his supporters go to Gingrich as expected, then Gingrich would be ahead of Romney nationally by 7%.
Romney and Santorum took a much stronger line against Gingrich in interviews on Sunday. Romney is now mentioning the ethics investigation of Gingrich when he was speaker of the House. Santorum describes Gingrich as a “very high-risk candidate.” Santorum is bringing up how House Republicans turned on Gingrich within three years and says he is undisciplined. “We have to have someone who makes Obama the issue in this race, not the Republican nominee,” Santorum said.
Santorum dismisses calls to drop out so that there can be one viable challenger to the right of Romney. He points out that he defeated Romney in Iowa and Gingrich won in South Carolina with a divided field. Santorum is likely counting on Romney and his supporters to use their huge financial advantages to air attack ads in Florida and cripple Gingrich’s lead. When that happened in Iowa, Santorum quickly rose.
Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul need to win 1,144 delegates to officially take the Republican nomination. So far, only 76 have been awarded. Romney leads with 33, followed by Gingrich with 25. Santorum is in third with 14 delegates and Paul has 4.
This race is going to extent a long time, and Romney, Gingrich and Santorum each have realistic paths to victory. The die has been cast for another fiery debate Monday night – now with more at stake than ever.
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