Big Questions After South Carolina Primary

January 22, 2012 by staff 

Big Questions After South Carolina Primary, Newt Gingrich hammered Mitt Romney in South Carolina’s Republican primary Saturday, erasing Romney’s big lead of a week ago and setting the stage for a free-for-all in Florida’s crucial primary in 10 days.

Gingrich, the former U.S. House speaker from Georgia, won the contest in part with debate performances that struck a chord with the state’s conservative voters. Meanwhile, Romney, a Michigan native and former governor of Massachusetts, was kept off balance with questions about his taxes and record in business.

Gingrich’s win bolstered claims by Romney’s opponents, who say he is too moderate to present voters with a clear choice against President Barack Obama in the November election.

After Gingrich’s poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, the victory vaults him back into contention, forcing a showdown with Romney on Jan. 31 in more moderate and populous Florida. Polls there, albeit taken before Gingrich’s surge, have shown Romney far ahead.

Still, the turn-of-events hints that the fight for the nomination is likely to continue in primaries that follow, including Michigan’s on Feb. 28.

Romney has the advantage in money and organization in Florida and also because nearly one-third of the voters in the state’s primary are expected to vote early by absentee ballot. But to get his party’s nomination now, Romney will have to buck history: South Carolina has correctly picked the Republican nominee since 1980.

“We don’t have the kind of money that at least some of the candidates have, but at least we do have ideas,” Gingrich said in his victory speech, referring to Romney and asking supporters to call friends in Florida to help him.

With 99% of the precincts reporting at 11:30 p.m., Gingrich held a lead of 41%-27% over Romney. Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania trailed with 17%, and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas had 13%.

“He captured the imagination of Republican voters through his domination of the debates, the depth of issues he commands and his overall vision for the country,” said veteran South Carolina political consultant Bob McAlister, who helped Republican John McCain’s presidential campaign four years ago. “It’s no longer, ‘Mitt Romney is the only one who can beat Obama.’ It’s, ‘Newt Gingrich is the only one who can beat Obama.’ ”

In Thursday’s debate, the live audience roared its approval when Gingrich decried as despicable the news media’s reporting on his second wife saying he had asked for permission to carry on an affair with his third and current wife. Gingrich denied her claims.

Hitting Romney relentlessly as a “Massachusetts moderate,” Gingrich — the architect of the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 for the first time in 40 years — turned on its head the claim that Romney was the best candidate to beat Obama.

Romney was already headed to Florida on Saturday night, and his campaign has announced he will take part in a debate Monday in Tampa. His participation had been in doubt until recently.

The Sunshine State has many transplants from the Northeast, which could work to Romney’s advantage.

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