COLUMBIA, S.C. — “History-making” was just one of the terms heard Saturday night to characterize Newt Gingrich’s triumph in the Republican primary in South Carolina. Where a Rasmussen Poll barely a week ago showed Mitt Romney leading the former House Speaker among likely voters by sixteen percentage points statewide, a combination of two stellar debate performances, some critical endorsements, and the exit of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry from the race (and his blessing for the Georgian) helped Gingrich turn the race upside down and defeat Romney (As of 8:15 PM, his margin of victory was uncertain, with official counts giving Gingrich an edge of 39 to 36 per cent and several network projections having him defeat Romney by a larger margin).
“The Dewey-Truman analogy may be best applied not to Romney-Obama in 2012 but to Gingrich-Romney,” observed historian David Pietrusza, author of the much-praised “1948” on Truman’s upset of that year.
Coming in a state where every winner since its first-ever Republican primary in 1980 has gone on to become the presidential nominee, Gingrich’s win has convinced skeptics who had once written him off as too controversial to be nominated to consider him as a prospective candidate against Barack Obama.
For supporters of Romney, the scenario of wrapping up the nomination after the Palmetto State primary is now out of the question. The former Massachusetts governor must now face the possibility of a protracted nomination battle against a reinvigorated Gingrich and Ron Paul, who drew 16% of the vote. (Although Rick Santorum actually out polled Paul with 17%, there were questions after South Carolina about whether the former Pennsylvania senator could raise the funds necessary to compete in Florida and its costly media market on January 31st).
So the major question is whether Gingrich can live up to his vow to HUMAN EVENTS three days ago that “I have a game plan to win.” His Florida campaign chairman, former state Attorney General Bill McCollum, told us last week that his eager volunteers were poised to take advantage of a Gingrich win in South Carolina. Noting that there were volunteer chairmen in all 67 counties and that the Gingrich campaign had signed on Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2010 campaign quarterback as their full-time manager in the state, McCollum insisted that Florida “will be ready for Newt once he takes care of South Carolina.”
Assuming he wins or does well in Florida, Gingrich told us last week, “we will be competing in the Republican caucuses [to choose national convention delegates] in Colorado and Minnesota February 7 and then the caucuses in Washington State [March 3] and then we’re into ‘Super Tuesday,’referring to the voting March 6 in which caucuses and primaries in a dozen states will choose their delegates. The most delegate-rich of the “Super Tuesday” states is his home state of Georgia, where most elected officials from Gov. Nathan Deal on down have endorsed their former House Member.
But, with support from scores of elected office-holders and party leaders, Romney will be strong in those states as well. He is expected to receive the endorsement of popular former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush soon. And even Gingrich himself concedes that Romney can depend on more money, dubbing the former governor’s war chest “small by Obama standards, large by Republican standards.”
With a reputation for being a chaotic organizer, Gingrich himself has been in the rather unique position of having fresh volunteer support, better showings in polls, and more small donations emerge almost overnight as he continues to perform well in televised debates. His South Carolina chairman John Napier freely admitted to us that his man’s performances in two debates in the state were the critical element in his turning a likely loss into a win that is possibly game-changing.
Right now, the most certain conclusion on the Republican presidential race is that it will go on longer than the punditorcracy anticipated, or many party leaders hoped for.
And, at the very least, it will.