The 12-point win represented a swift and extraordinary turnaround in Gingrich’s fortunes — thanks largely to strong performances in two debates. In those forums, he issued a stirring appeal to the state’s strident conservatism, convinced its voters he would be a formidable opponent against President Obama and threw Romney off his stride.
“We don’t have the kind of money that at least one of the candidates has,” Gingrich said in his victory speech in Columbia, referring to Romney. “But we do have ideas, and we do have people and we proved here in South Carolina that people power with the right ideas beats big money.”
He also peppered his speech with dismissive references to “elites” in the media and in Washington and New York — a sign that he intends to continue the truculently populist tone that resonated with voters in South Carolina.
After disappointing distant finishes in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, Gingrich had limped into South Carolina more than 10 points down in most polls. So battered was his candidacy that Gingrich himself had conceded that his campaign might be over if he failed to turn in a strong performance.
His victory not only changes the near-term dynamic of this presidential campaign but also defies political history. South Carolina is known as a firewall for the GOP establishment in presidential contests, traditionally extinguishing the hopes of insurgent candidates such as Gingrich.
This year also marks the first time that a different Republican candidate has won each of the first trio of contests — still further evidence of how unsettled and dissatisfied the party’s voters are in a year when they are anxious to unseat a vulnerable incumbent president.
Since 1980, every South Carolina GOP primary winner has gone on to win the party’s nomination. But how far this victory will carry Gingrich remains very much in question. Although Romney has yet to win over the Republican activist base, he has by far the most formidable financial resources and organization. Those give him a substantial edge as the contest moves next to the vast state of Florida, which holds its primary Jan. 31.
And in his concession speech, Romney — who has until now trained most of his fire on Obama — signaled that he will be taking a harder line against Gingrich as the contest goes forward.
“The choice within our party has also come into stark focus. President Obama has no experience running a business and no experience running a state. Our party can’t be led to victory by someone who also has never run a business and never run a state,” Romney said. “Our president has divided the nation, engaged in class warfare and attacked the free-enterprise system that has made America the economic envy of the world. We cannot defeat that president with a candidate who has joined in that very assault on free enterprise.”