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.