Look Out Mitt Here Comes Newt!
Okay, game on. Coming out of his victory in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney had a double-digit lead over Newt Gingrich in South Carolina. A lot of the political press in the U.S. was already writing that Romney was on the verge of securing the Republican Party nomination, assuming he went three-for-three in the first three contests.
Then the bottom fell out. Gingrich pounced in the two debates leading up to the South Carolina voting and effectively rebuffed, at least in the short term, the allegation from one of his ex-wives that he wanted ‘an open marriage’ in the late 1990’s.
Gingrich is a master debater and his “in your face” style with liberals and what he calls “the media elite” absolutely excite conservative voters, and that helped him enormously in South Carolina. It is also what kept his presidential hopes alive last year when his fundraising dried up and all the experts wrote him off.
Gingrich is now positioned to become the favorite of conservatives around the country and his win in South Carolina may begin to change the notion among some Republicans that only Romney would be a viable general election candidate against President Obama. Exit polls in South Carolina found that Republicans there actually believe that Gingrich would be the stronger general election candidate against Mr. Obama than Romney. That is bad news for Romney and if Gingrich manages to pull off the unexpected and actually win the nomination, we will all look to his debate performances as the key to his multiple surges this year and last.
Looking For Daylight In The Sunshine State
Next up is Florida, a key state not only in the Republican nomination race but in the November general election as well. Florida is large, diverse and not always easy to predict (just ask Al Gore about the 2000 presidential election). In one sense, Florida should favor Mitt Romney with his organization and money and his ability to reach millions of voters through television ads, both the positive ones on his behalf and the negative ones targeting New Gingrich. But if Gingrich can build on his momentum heading out of South Carolina and make a fresh appeal to conservative Republican voters in Florida, this could be another close primary race.
Obama supporters will be watching the Republican results closely too. Florida looms once again as a crucial battleground state in November and the president would love to repeat his success there four years ago when he defeated John McCain. Florida is also hosting the Republican Party’s national nominating convention in September when thousands of Republicans from across the country will gather in Tampa to ratify their nominee.
You can expect a much more aggressive Mitt Romney between now and the Florida primary Jan. 21. There are two more debates before the Florida primary and they represent Romney’s best chance to put Gingrich back on the defensive and to reassert why he believes he would be the stronger general election candidate. This is Romney’s big chance to check Gingrich’s momentum now. If he doesn’t, he risks a long and potentially ugly primary campaign that could weaken the eventual Republican nominee and help President Obama in November.
The Wacky Week That Was In Carolina
When they talk about turning points in the 2012 road to the White House, this past week in South Carolina will qualify on a number of fronts. First off, Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry chose to get out of the race. Remember back when there were eight or nine Republican contenders? Well, it’s down to the final four and South Carolina had a role in that, especially for Perry who was depending on a good showing to stay alive in the race. In the span of just a few days, conservatives began to rally around Gingrich, and Romney’s strategy of dividing the conservative vote among several candidates began to look shaky.
South Carolina has always played a pivotal role in the Republican Party nomination battles. Ever since Ronald Reagan won in 1980, the candidate who won the South Carolina primary went on to win the party nomination. We’ll see if Newt Gingrich can duplicate that feat.
But one thing is clear, South Carolina has changed the trajectory of the Republican presidential race. No one is talking anymore about a quick Romney march to the nomination. That sense of inevitability around Romney, if it ever was there, has been shattered in the wake of the South Carolina results.
The month ahead
After the Florida primary on January 31st, the Republican primary and caucus calendar slows down a bit. A handful of states hold Republican caucus votes in early to mid-February, but the only real action comes late in the month when Arizona and Michigan hold primaries on February 28th. The next really big event is so-called Super Tuesday on March 6th when 12 states hold primaries or caucuses, the single most important day looming in the Republican race.
It’s possible Super Tuesday will go a long ways toward deciding this race. Then again, we might be in for a repeat of the extended Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton battle in the Democratic primaries of four years ago. Contrary to the expectations of some that a lengthy and divisive primary would hurt the party, Mr. Obama went on to an easy victory that November.