Riding a wave of resentment toward the status quo and propelled by a desire among conservatives for a firebrand who will take the fight aggressively to President Obama, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich won a smashing victory in the Republican presidential primary in South Carolina Saturday.[See pictures of the 2012 GOP candidates.]
Gingrich was declared the winner by the television networks shortly after the polls closed at 7 p.m. Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, the earlier front-runner in the race, was projected to finish second in a major setback for his campaign. Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas were in a tight contest for third place.
In his victory speech, Gingrich condemned "the elites in Washington and New York" and the "elite media" that don't understand the American people. He said the reason he has done so well is because "I articulate the deepest held values of the American people"—especially a belief in "American exceptionalism." He said his campaign will draw stark contrasts between himself and President Obama, between "the America of paychecks" versus "the America of food stamps," between a nation based on independence versus a nation based on dependence.
Romney pledged to continue his campaign more intensely than ever.
"This is a hard fight because there's so much worth fighting for," Romney said in conceding his loss. "We still have a long way to go and a lot of work to do....I will compete in every single state." He also had some harsh words for Gingrich and compared him to President Obama. Both, he said, have "never run a business and never run a state," and he said both have attacked "free enterprise" and "demonized prosperity."
It was an amazing turnaround for Gingrich, who once served as a GOP congressman from the neighboring state of Georgia. His victory had seemed unlikely as recently as two weeks ago when he lagged badly in the opinion polls behind Romney. But deep distrust of Romney as a genuine conservative and some stumbles by the former venture capitalist, along with Gingrich's strong performance in the debates, changed the dynamic and created a pro-Gingrich surge.
Gingrich's swagger and conservative vision captured the imagination of many on the right, including late deciders who made up their minds this week after two South Carolina debates showcased Gingrich's trademark toughness, his familiarity with the issues, and his willingness to confront the news media for what he considers liberal bias and a focus on the negative. Not even the last-minute allegation by former wife Marianne that Gingrich had asked her to allow an "open marriage" in 1999 could slow Gingrich down. He angrily denied the accusation in the debate Thursday night and gained considerable sympathy as he attacked the media for unfairly publicizing a private matter.
Gingrich's win seemed to assure that the fight for the GOP nomination will be a protracted and ferocious affair, rather than a quick march to victory by Romney, which seemed to be the case after he won the New Hampshire primary earlier this month.
But Romney's apparent win in the Iowa caucuses was reversed after a recount by the state GOP gave the victory to Santorum, helping to reverse Romney's momentum. That verdict was announced Friday, on the eve of the South Carolina primary. Gingrich also benefited by the withdrawal this week of Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. His endorsement of Gingrich may have helped him marginally.
Now, three different candidates have each won a nominating contest--Santorum in Iowa; Romney in New Hampshire, and Gingrich in South Carolina--a rarity in GOP nominating politics. Gingrich supporters pointed out that since 1980 the winner of the South Carolina primary has gone on to win the GOP nomination. At his victory party in Columbia, supporters chanted "Newt!" after the results were announced, and Ray Lindsey, a Republican official in Orangeburg County, said, "If it's a blowout, Romney's toast."
But Karl Rove, the former chief political strategist for President George W. Bush, told Fox News that South Carolina was "a vote to go on" and keep the race competitive rather than a "confirmation" of Gingrich as the nominee. "We're at the beginning of the contest," Rove said.