The fight for Florida began Monday as the dust from South Carolina continued to settle.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who performed below expectations in Iowa and New Hampshire, posted a convincing win Saturday in the Palmetto State, taking just over 40 percent of all ballots cast. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who went into the contest as the nominal front-runner, finished second with just a hair under 28 percent of the vote.
His failure to deliver the goods in South Carolina is, along with the Gingrich surge, reflected in national polls showing Romney losing support. Even the early Florida polls show Gingrich out in front.
Some commentators have suggested that Gingrich's rise can be tied directly to the forceful way in which he responded to an ill-advised query concerning his ex-wife Marianne posed by CNN's John King, moderator of the final South Carolina debate. Asked by King if he would like to address the allegations she made in an interview with ABC News's Brian Ross, Gingrich responded, "No. But I will," to which the crowd responded enthusiastically.
Hitting back at the media has worked for Gingrich many times over the years. Attributing his success to this answer alone, however, is bad analysis. The fact is that Gingrich has greater appeal to the voters in South Carolina because of his stance on a whole series of issues, voters who are hungry for the kind of change they thought Obama had promised to bring to Washington but has failed to deliver.
"South Carolina is more representative of the GOP than Iowa and New Hampshire," former South Carolina GOP Chairman Van Hipp wrote for Fox News over the weekend. "It is comprised of economic, social and national security conservatives. All three came together to elect Ronald Reagan in 1980. Once again, all three need to be motivated and come together for the GOP to defeat President Obama."
"Following last Monday night's Fox News debate, these three necessary components to a 'winning GOP strategy' began to coalesce around Gingrich," Hipp continued, an analysis that is backed up by the polling data.
The results from the primary also bear that out. There were 30,000 more votes cast last Saturday than in the 2000 GOP primary ,and 157,000 more than in 2008. The total increase in turnout from the last primary to the latest is in fact greater than the total number of voters who turned out for the Iowa caucuses which, it must be pointed out, included Democrats as well as independents.
So convincing was his win in South Carolina that, going into the Florida primary Gingrich is now ahead in the delegate count. According to TheGreenPapers website "soft" count, Gingrich now has 27 of the 1,144 delegates needed for nomination. Romney is in second place with 17, Texas Rep. Ron Paul has nine, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has six.
There's a long way to go between now and when the GOP returns to Tampa to pick its nominee late in the summer. The lack of fireworks in Monday's debate, despite Romney's effort to light a few, means the race may still have a few more twists and turns left in. If Hipp is correct, however, and the "three-legged stool" that made up the Reagan coalition has turned to Gingrich, then we may look back and see Florida as the place where he began to pull away.
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