COLUMBIA, S.C. — It had been expected to be a coronation, sealing Mitt Romney’s status as the Republican nominee. But there wasn’t much of a party atmosphere at the Romney campaign South Carolina primary night party. A whole row of waiters waited eagerly for takers at the cash bar. Baskets of goldfish crackers and potato chips sat virtually untouched.
There was a smattering of clapping when the polls closed at 7:00 p.m. — and a low rumbling moments later when most of the networks called the race for Newt Gingrich. Supporters sat in temporary bleachers, transfixed by their smartphones, taking in what they wouldn’t have believed based on polls a week earlier: Gingrich had capitalized on his debate performances, strong Tea Party support and attacks on Romney’s business background to beat their candidate among almost every category of voters. Even on the issue of “electability,” which Romney had pushed hard in his South Carolina ads, exit polls showed voters favoring Gingrich. “I so wanted to go home — I haven’t seen it since Christmas Day,” lamented the newspaper reporter next to me.
It took some prompting, and the presence of television cameras, to get the Romney supporters energized. (The favored chant: “Florida, here we come.”) But they’d motivated themselves into a respectable roar by the time the candidate entered the room at 7:56. “You should hear them when we win,” Romney laughed.
In his concession speech, Romney continued the theme that he’s best positioned to beat President Obama in November. But his jabs at Gingrich seemed to go over best with the crowd. “Our party can’t be led to victory by someone who also has never run a business and never led a state,” he declared. “The Republican party doesn’t demonize prosperity — we celebrate success.”
By 8:07, he was done, and the lingering supporters tried to remain upbeat. “I’m shocked and disappointed at my South Carolina friends,” said Mike Zequeira, 22, of Greenville. But Zequeira said he planned to take a few days of vacation to volunteer for Romney in Florida. “I’m originally from Fort Lauderdale, and I’m hearing good things from the people I know there — they think Romney’s the only viable Republican candidate.”
Trey Byars, 17, of Lexington, had been out with his friends at midnight in the pouring rain the night before, setting up hundreds of Romney signs. He admitted that primary night hadn’t gone as he’d expected. But he pointed to Romney’s 25-point lead in Florida and proclaimed that he had no doubt the former Massachusetts governor would clinch the nomination.
Of course, that’s what people said about South Carolina a week ago.