Newt Gingrich’s victory in South Carolina’s Republican presidential primary derails rival Mitt Romney’s plans for quickly sealing the party’s nomination, raising the stakes in the next contest in Florida.
Gingrich won 40 percent of the vote in South Carolina, following a surge in the days leading up to a primary where the state’s governor was backing Romney.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, ran second with 28 percent, with 99 percent of the vote counted. Former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania had 17 percent, followed by U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas with 13 percent.
Yesterday’s results deal a setback to Romney’s efforts to ride momentum into Florida and effectively clinch the nomination with a win in that state’s Jan. 31 primary. Instead, Republicans face the possibility of a prolonged fight further dividing a party already fractured over who to run against President Barack Obama in November.
With Gingrich’s South Carolina triumph, the Republican race has now produced a different first-place finisher in the first three nominating contests.
Speaking on Sunday news programs this morning, Gingrich cast himself as best-suited to face Obama in debates next fall.
“My job in Florida is to convince people that I am the one candidate who can clearly defeat Obama in a series of debates,” Gingrich said in an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
In his victory speech last night, Gingrich evoked former President Ronald Reagan, casting his campaign as an inclusive effort to re-ignite American optimism.
“We want to run not a Republican campaign, we want to run an American campaign, because we are optimists about the future,” said Gingrich, speaking to supporters in Columbia.
Following the loss, Romney said today he would release his 2010 tax returns and 2011 estimates on Jan. 24.
In an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” Romney cited the time spent talking about his returns as a reason for his defeat in South Carolina. After months of refusals, Romney said last week that he would release returns, though not until April.
Tax Return Distraction
“I think we just made a mistake in holding off as long as we did,” Romney said. “It just was a distraction.”
Romney, speaking to supporters in Columbia after the South Carolina race, congratulated Gingrich for his victory, and suggested the former U.S. House speaker couldn’t beat Obama.
“Our party can’t be led to victory by someone who also has never run a business and never run a state,” Romney said.
While insisting that he is “going to win this nomination,” he also said: “This race is getting to be even more interesting.”
Despite losses in two of the first three contests, Romney enters Florida with significant advantages. His campaign and its allies have been airing television ads in the state attacking rivals for nearly a month.
With early voting already under way, his campaign has already been aggressive courting supporters and encouraging them to cast ballots before the primary.
The contest presents the biggest test and potential payoff in the race so far. The diverse state, with roughly double the combined populations of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, demands a significant financial and organizational investment. The winner will be awarded all of the state’s 50 delegates.
Both Romney and Gingrich have courted the endorsement of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who left office in 2007 rated as a “great” or “good” governor by 57 percent of those surveyed by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
Bush pledged to “stay neutral” in the race, in an interview yesterday. “I intend to help whoever wins the nomination,” he said.
Lagging in fundraising and staff, Gingrich starts in Florida with a disadvantage. “I need your help in reaching out to people in Florida,” Gingrich told his supporters last night.
Referring to Romney, he said, “We don’t have the kind of money at least one of the candidates does, but we do have ideas and we do have people.”
Santorum’s campaign could also hamper Gingrich’s efforts, as both compete for voters seeking an alternative to Romney. As last night’s results became clear, Santorum announced plans to campaign in Florida, saying he intends stay in the race.
“We will go to Florida and then we’re going to Arizona and Colorado,” Santorum told supporters. “It’s a wide open race.”
As Santorum spoke at the Citadel in Charleston, Gingrich supporters several hundred miles away chanted “Drop out now!”
Since 1980, every Republican candidate who won the South Carolina primary has gone on to capture the party nomination.
Nearly $9 million was spent on ads by the campaigns and their allies in South Carolina, according to data from New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG.
Preliminary results from exit polls in the state indicated that Gingrich surged in the final days of the campaign. About 50 percent of the voters said they decided who to support over the last few days, around the same proportion who said televised debates played a major role in whom they chose.
Focus on Economy
The data showed Republican primary voters were most focused on the economy and who could defeat Obama. More than half cited the economy as the issue that mattered most in their voting choice, according to the Associated Press, while nearly half said they were looking for someone who could beat Obama.
Santorum, who spotlighted his opposition to abortion and gay marriage, campaigned heavily in parts of South Carolina with voters concerned about those issues. Yet the exit polls suggested those voters were more concerned about beating Obama than ideological purity.
Paul, who stresses his libertarian views of a limited federal government, didn’t spend much time in South Carolina. His support for withdrawing troops from bases across the world was a tough sell in the state, which has a strong military presences and large number of veterans.
“Don’t go to war unless the war is declared,” he told supporters at a sports bar in Columbia. “Bring the troops home and have them spend their money here, not -- not overseas.”
Romney arrived in South Carolina with momentum after winning the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary by 16 percentage points. He was backed by the state’s Republican governor, Nikki Haley, viewed as a rising star in the party, who often accompanied him during his campaign stops.
The final days of the South Carolina campaign, though, brought a series of surprises that reshaped the race.
Romney, 64, was stripped of his initially announced eight-vote victory in Iowa’s Jan. 3 caucuses when state party officials last week reported a recount that showed Santorum ahead by 34 votes.
The Republican field also narrowed, as former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. dropped out on Jan. 16 and then Texas Governor Rick Perry did the same on Jan. 19, endorsing Gingrich.
Gingrich, 68, gained support on the strength of strong performances in two debates last week, even while facing allegations from an ex-wife that he once asked her for an open marriage to continue his affair with his current wife, Callista.
Gingrich dismissed the accusation as false and chastised CNN moderator John King for starting off a debate on the night of Jan. 19 with a question about the allegation.
Polls showed the race tightening as Gingrich pressed his attacks and, in the final surveys, the former Georgia lawmaker pulled ahead. In the final hours, Romney backers argued that a quick end to the nominating contest would put their party in a stronger position to challenge Obama next fall.
“I want to end it in South Carolina because I’m watching the Democrats raise money by the day,” Haley said yesterday in Greenville. “It is good for all Republicans and conservatives to end this in South Carolina.”