The South Carolina primary on Saturday saw a surprise, with Newt Gingrich once again surging to take the win. Gingrich, whose campaign had been left for dead after a brief, powerful surge in December, was revitalized, with Gingrich securing 40% of the vote, well ahead of previously favored Mitt Romney’s 28%. The primary marked a steady rise for Gingrich, along with an equally steady fall for Mitt Romney in South Carolina.
Gingrich was surely bolstered by his strong debate performances as in the week leading up to the primary. Exit polls suggest that the debates were important to voters; up to two-thirds of the voters said that the debates were important in their Presidential choice, and of that two-thirds, 50% picked Gingrich, compared to 22% for Romney. An endorsement from former candidate Rick Perry certainly helped garner votes from Perry’s supporters. The news was not all positive, however. A scandalous interview with Gingrich’s ex-wife Marianne revealed that Gingrich asked for an open marriage at the same time Gingrich was travelling and making speeches about the importance of family unity. Marianne Gingrich described their conversation, from the Washington Post: “ ‘He said the problem with me was I wanted him all to myself,” she said. “I said, ‘That’s what marriage is.’ He said [of Callista], ‘She doesn’t care what I do.’ ” The voters decided, however, that Gingrich’s debates were more telling than the interview, and as a result he surged in the polls to coincide with his rivals’ decline.
Mitt Romney’s week leading up to the primary was certainly not the surge of momentum leading to the Republican nomination that he had hoped. Romney began the week hoping to inch closer to the nomination, but he certainly did not expect to be upended by Gingrich. First, Romney’s performance in the Iowa caucuses, in which he won by 8 votes, was changed, as after further consideration the Iowa Republican party concluded that Rick Santorum had actually edged Romney out. During the debate leading up to the primary, Romney was attacked by the other candidates, and was accused by Sen. Rick Santorum of “playing footsie with the left.” Santorum came in third in the election, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, coming off a third place finish in Iowa and a second place finish in New Hampshire, finished fourth.
What does this result mean for the shape of the Republican presidential race going forward? The previous inevitability of Romney’s nomination has all but disappeared, and many are calling for a two-horse race between Gingrich and Romney. The unexpected surge and thorough defeat of Romney in South Carolina indicated that Gingrich was not merely a candidate fighting to destroy Mitt Romney after his super PAC obliterated his poll numbers in Iowa, but a dangerous force that can garner attention in the Republican Party.
But what is next for the Romney campaign? Romney has already started to attack Gingrich personally in the debates, while previously he had left the Gingrich bashing to his campaign. Romney’s well-documented weakness as a candidate is the voters’ overall lack of enthusiasm for him as a candidate. Romney must, by whatever means necessary, convince America that he is not only a likable character but also a candidate strong enough to challenge Barack Obama in November.
The primary in Florida in the coming week takes on new importance. Expect to see even more negative ads and bitter rhetoric as Gingrich and Romney vie for the Republican nomination. The time is drawing nearer for the candidate to step in and secure the nomination before the party rips itself apart before they even get the chance to challenge President Obama.