Columbia, S.C. — Just a week ago, what was most striking about the Republican presidential race was the possibility that the party’s least-dominant front-runner in many years — Mitt Romney — could effectively wrap up the GOP nomination faster than anyone in his party ever had. That came crashing down Saturday night.
Newt Gingrich’s stunning victory in South Carolina, which came after he finished fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire, respectively, rewrites in dramatic fashion the latest story line of the Republican campaign. Now a competition that, for all practical purposes, might have ended here moves on to Florida for another major showdown on Jan. 31. In all probability, the fight will continue well beyond that.
South Carolina primary exit polls
Florida presents a major challenge, given its size and complexity. The stakes there will be sizable. Romney cannot afford another defeat there, given that he has more resources to wage a campaign in a state where campaigning is costly. Gingrich, however, risks losing his momentum if he is not able to capitalize on this success in Florida.
Though Romney is clearly hurt, many Republicans still see him as the favorite to win the nomination. The overriding question is whether Saturday’s loss is merely a small setback of the kind experienced by many past presidential nominees. Or does South Carolina mark the beginning of real erosion in Romney’s standing that could lead to the former House speaker winning the nomination, something unthinkable only a month ago?
That’s what Florida — and then Nevada, Michigan, Arizona and perhaps other states on the calendar — will tell us. But there is no doubt that the defeat here on Saturday represents a setback to Romney, who now has won just one of three opening contests in the GOP race after it looked like he was positioned to start the year 3-0 (though he still has two second-place finishes and thus the best overall record of the field). Strong debate performances by the former House speaker and a week of missteps and stumbles by the former Massachusetts governor brought the race to this moment.
A week ago there were six candidates still standing in the GOP race. Now, though technically there are four — the others being former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) — the Republican race is now the two-person contest that many once anticipated. That it is between Romney and Gingrich is the latest evidence of conventional wisdom being thrown into the wastebasket.
In a head-to-head race, Romney enjoys superior resources and a superior campaign operation. His campaign long has prepared for a protracted contest. Gingrich is riding the momentum of someone who twice went through near-death experiences, overcame the odds and emerged ready to fight on.
Romney has the support of elected officials and what passes for a Republican establishment, many of whom see Gingrich as a risky nominee. Gingrich is trying to tap the energy of the conservative grassroots of a party whose base stands to the right of Romney and has never been comfortable with him.