With Gingrich Win in S.C., Focus Shifts to Florida
Policy + Politics

With Gingrich Win in S.C., Focus Shifts to Florida

REUTERS/Jason Reed

Mitt Romney’s once sleek, well oiled campaign is suddenly in crisis mode following former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s stunning victory in Saturday’s South Carolina GOP primary.  With 41 percent of the total vote to Romney’s 27 percent, Gingrich transformed what only recently looked like a cakewalk for the former Massachusetts governor into a tough two-man contest   that could drag on for months.

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum finished a distant third, with 18 percent of the vote, followed by Rep. Ron Paul of Texas with 13 percent, but the two made it clear they were in the race for the long run.

After disappointing showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, Gingrich stirred  conservative South Carolina Republicans with  relentless criticism of Romney as a “moderate Massachusetts governor” who lacks the grit and conservative core to stand up to Obama this fall. He also blasted the former Bain Capital private equity executive as a corporate vulture who destroyed many jobs in the process of making big profits for his investors. And rather than shrinking from a question concerning his ex-wife’s charge that he sought an “open marriage,” Gingrich electrified Republicans at a Thursday night GOP debate by sternly lecturing the CNN questioner for his “despicable” action and accusing an “elite” news media of trying to help President Obama win reelection.

Little more than a week ago, Romney appeared to be his party’s inevitable choice to challenge President Obama this fall, and many felt that his broad experience as a businessman and state chief executive would make him the ideal choice to skewer Obama on his stewardship of the economy and government.  Indeed, Romney has devoted much of his campaign to directly attacking Obama as an incompetent leader who is in over his head.

But Romney’s  clumsy handling of sharp criticism from Gingrich and others about his years at Bain Capital, his ill-advised comments about his wealth, and his stubborn refusal to release his tax returns before April helped Gingrich to close  a huge gap in the polls and then surge to a victory yesterday.

Political experts have been warning for weeks that Romney, the straight-laced and tightly scripted  Mormon family man, stood little chance of winning the hearts  or votes of South Carolina’s social conservatives and tea party adherents, and yesterday’s results more than confirmed that.

Gingrich strategists said the former speaker confronted two major challenges in South Carolina, according to the Washington Post: He had to convince voters that he would be a formidable opponent for President Obama in the fall, and he had to stir doubts about Romney’s electability, character and conservatism.

Unlike his showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, Gingrich came out ahead of Romney in South Carolina among those voters who said that an ability to win in November was the quality they were looking for most in a candidate, according to network exist polls.

Moreover, 78 percent of the GOP voters said that jobs and the economy were their top concern, according to an NBC exit poll. Here again Gingrich - - who boasted of his vast  experience in creating jobs wrestling with deficits both in the Reagan era and while he served as House Speaker during the Clinton administration -- stacked up well against Romney, the former governor and business executive.

Gingrich was gracious in his victory speech, praising Romney, Santorum and Paul in what sounded like an overly optimistic effort to help them see the inevitability of his campaign.  He repeatedly promised to balance the budget “as rapidly as possible,” and to eventually “run a surplus” to reduce the government’s reliance on China to finance our debt.

He also used the speech to repeatedly return to themes of “American exceptionalism.” And  he vowed to lead a crusade to restore conservative American values against “New York and Washington elites” in the media, business and politics, and what he called Obama’s “Saul Alinsky” radicalism – a reference to the Jewish American community organizer and writer.

“Now I believe . . . that this is the most important election of our lifetime,” he said. “If Barack Obama can get reelected after this disaster, just think how radical he would be in a second term.”

It was a bitter day for Romney, whose Super PAC pounded Gingrich into the ground in Iowa with $3.5 million worth of negative ads, only to be vilified and marginalized in South Carolina by a similar batch of Gingrich PAC attack ads. In his concession speech, Romney signaled he was prepared for a long-hard fight and that competition was making “our campaign better.”  And while congratulating Gingrich on his victory, he sharply faulted him for joining with Obama and the Democrats in criticizing Romney’s business tactics at Bain – calling that an attack on freedom and free enterprise.

“We cannot defeat [Obama] with a candidate who has joined that very assault on free enterprise,” Romney said. “When my opponents attack success and free enterprise, they‘re not only attacking me, they’re attacking every person who dreams of a better future,” he said. “I will support you. I will help you have a better future.”

Romney argued that the Republican Party “doesn’t demonize prosperity. We celebrate success, “adding that “Those who pick up the weapons of the left today will find them turned against us tomorrow.”

The next stop is Florida, where Romney currently holds a strong 18 to 20 percentage point lead over Gingrich and has high hopes of halting his political free-fall. Florida is a much bigger and more politically diverse state, where Romney’s message should get a better reception. But with Gingrich heading into the Citrus State with Big Mo, Romney may have trouble holding on to that lead, and Monday evening’s GOP debate will provide another important matchup between the two.

One obvious problem facing Romney there is that he probably has alienated many Hispanic voters with his promise to veto any measure that would create a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants – the so called Dream Act. Gingrich in debates has signaled a far more lenient approach to dealing with illegal immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for many years, and that could become a sensitive topic in the two Florida debates. But Gingrich will have problems as well, including explaining to seniors his idea for creating scheduled private savings accounts as an alternative to Social Security for those who want it. Some fear a parallel system of private accounts set up by younger Americans could weaken the Social Security system.

Since 1980, every candidate who has won the South Carolina GOP primary has gone on to capture the Republican presidential nomination, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who narrowly defeated former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in 2008 by a mere three percentage points. While that augurs well for Gingrich and his supporters, the long primary season calendar and new party rules eliminating winner-take all in divvying up the national delegates likely will work in Romney’s favor. That’s because he is far better organized than Gingrich around the country and continues to rake in the most campaign contributions and Super Pack money.

After the January 31 Florida primary, the battle moves to Nevada, Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, Arizona and Michigan. Romney should find much of that political terrain to be more politically hospitable than South Carolina, with its large percentage of social conservatives and tea party advocates. Romney’s father, George, was once governor of Michigan, and the younger Romney can count on substantial support there and throughout the Midwest. Moreover, McCain, who endorsed Romney in New Hampshire, is certain to campaign for him in Arizona and other western states.

Gingrich, who was practically left for dead last June when his top advisers walked away from his campaign, parlayed two strong debate performances last Monday and Thursday into a solid victory over the faltering Romney.

Yesterday’s vote capped an eventful and bizarre week in which Gingrich picked up the endorsements of Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin – which proved very helpful in solidifying South Carolina’s conservative base -- while Iowa GOP officials stripped Romney of his narrow first place finish in the GOP caucuses earlier this month and handed it to Santorum. 

While Romney’s aides complained about “debate fatigue” and exhaustion during the grueling week of campaigning, Gingrich, the former Georgia politician, seemed to thrive on the tough schedule as he swaggered across the state reminding audiences that he was a proud Southerner and one of them.  “As a Georgian, it feels good to be back at home in the South,” he said at the top of the CNN debate. 

Santorum, who has waged a populist campaign targeted to Christian conservatives and anti-abortion forces, came up short.  In a desperate bid to shoulder aside the surging Gingrich in the final days of the campaign, he portrayed his friend and former House colleague as unstable, unpredictable and prone to “grandiosity” during the Thursday night debate. Ron Paul, whose libertarian crusade hit its zenith in New Hampshire when he attracted nearly a quarter of the total GOP vote, hit a wall in South Carolina, where his anti-war and anti defense spending message got a cool reception – especially from a  sizeable population of active military and retirees.