Newt Gingrich won a landslide victory in Saturday’s South Carolina primary that historically picks the Republican presidential nominee, beating back a barrage of negative media and dirty tricks that threatened to derail his campaign in the final days.
“Thank you to everyone in South Caroline who decided to be with us in changing Washington,” Gingrich told his cheering supporters less than three hours after the polls closed. “It’s very humbling and very sobering to have so many people who so deeply want their country to get back on the right track.”
Gingrich praised his Republican opponents, calling Santorum “courageous,” Paul’s relentless campaign against the Federal Reserve “absolutely in the right direction,” and added that his chief rival, Romney, is “a good example of an American — hard working, very successful.”
“The fact is, you look at the four of us and we are proof you can come from a wide range of backgrounds, and in America, have a chance to make your case no matter what the elites think in New York and Washington,” Gingrich said.
“This is the most important election of our lifetime. If Barack Obama can’t be defeated after this disaster, just think how radical he would be in a second term. With your help, we are now moving on to Florida and beyond,” Gingrich said.
Gingrich’s win comes in spite of the negative hit his campaign took Thursday night when ABC News ran an interview with his ex-wife claiming that Gingrich wanted an open marriage. That attack backfired when Gingrich chided CNN anchor John King for leading a presidential debate with claims from an ex-wife, calling the question “despicable.”
The Gingrich campaign also beat back a last minute dirty trick after a fake CNN news alert was emailed around the state claiming that Gingrich wanted his wife to undergo an abortion. The network denied sending the news alert.
Gingrich was ten to fifteen points down in South Carolina polls only a few weeks ago, but exit polling suggested his two stellar debate performances helped turn the tide.
Exit polling from CBS News also showed Gingrich won evangelical and born-again Christian voters with 44 percent of their vote versus 22 percent for Santorum, 21 percent for Romney, and 13 percent for Paul. Gingrich also carried women voters by a comfortable 6 percent, although his lead was twice as great among male exit poll respondents. Part of Gingrich’s success among these groups might be attributed to their focus on other issues, as fully 63 percent of voters in the CBS exit poll said the economy was their greatest concern.
Interestingly, the majority of voters had a positive view of Romney’s background in corporate investment and restructuring, so he might not have suffered too badly from the Bain Capital assaults. But Gingrich outscored Romney in the category of which candidate seemed best able to defeat Obama in the general election, by 48 percent to 39 percent. That’s not good news for Romney’s aura of electability, especially coupled with the fact that he has only won a single state thus far, New Hampshire.
There are 25 delegates at stake in the South Carolina race. Already from the Iowa and New Hampshire contests, Romney had 31 delegates, while Paul has 10, Santorum has 8, and Gingrich had 3 before tonight. 1,144 delegates are needed to win.
A South Carolina victory has been part of every winning GOP nominee’s portfolio to date since the Reagan campaign in 1980, which set many of the benchmarks for modern Republican primaries.
Gingrich was already looking ahead to Florida, telling supporters on Saturday they are organized and ready to keep the momentum growing.
“We want to run, not a Republican campaign, we want to run an American campaign because we are optimistic about the future, because Americans have always been optimistic about the future,” Gingrich said. “If we unleash the American people, we can rebuild the America we love.”
Romney’s campaign was braced for a second-place win, managing expectations earlier in the day by telling supporters they expected to lose a few races.
The former Massachusetts governor characterized the state primary as a hard fight, but said “there’s so much worth fighting for.”
“We still have a long way to go and a lot of work to do, and tomorrow we’re going to move on to Florida – it’s a state that has suffered terribly under the failed policies of Barack Obama,” Romney said. “This election is a battle for the soul of America.”
Romney said he is in the race for the long haul with more funding and stronger organization than Gingrich, and is banking on a key endorsement from popular former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Romney took a detour from his usual stump speech about the direction of the country under the Obama administration, and retargeted his sights on Gingrich, characterizing him as an opponent of free enterprise.
“When my opponent attacks success and free enterprise, he is attacking every person who dreams of a better future. He attacks you,” Romney said. “We’ve seen a frontal assault on free enterprise — we expected this from Obama, we didn’t expect Republicans to join him. The Republican Party doesn’t demonize prosperity we celebrate prosperity. This is a battle we cannot lose,” Romney said.
“Those who pick up the weapons of the left today, will find them turned against us tomorrow,” Romney said.
Paul’s fourth place finish didn’t damper his enthusiasm, he’s still in it for the long haul, he told his supporters.
So is Santorum, who congratulated Gingrich on what he described as “an amazing victory. He’s been up, he’s been down, and he’s never stopped fighting. Good job,” Santorum said.
“But this race and campaign are not going to be about tearing anybody down…but working class values my grandfather taught to me,” Santorum said. “Faith, family and freedom — we want to stand up and promote the values that made this country great.”
Some forbidding electoral territory for Gingrich lies ahead, including in his home state of Virginia where he won’t even be on the ballot. Gingrich will need a major sea change in national opinion to have a hope of shaking some of that safe Romney turf loose. Interestingly, on the eve of the South Carolina primary, the editor in chief of the Gallup polling organization reportedly said that Mitt Romney’s national support was “collapsing.”
But Mike Campbell, a Gingrich supporter and son of the late Republican Gov. Carroll Campbell, told HUMAN EVENTS http://www.humanevents.com/2012/01/21/newt-gingrich-not-mitt-romney-helped-by-south-carolinas-undecided-voters/ that he is confident that Gingrich is the nation’s best hope “to get a good conservative agenda” back in the White House.
And with 20 percent of South Carolinians still undecided when the polls opened this morning, Campbell predicted it would play well for Gingrich.
“People are starting to tune in, other than us political junkies,” Campbell said.
(John Hayward in Florida and John Gizzi in South Carolina also contributed to this report.)