Newt Gingrich Pulls Off South Carolina Upset, Increasing Chances of Long Nomination Fight

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Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Republican presidential candidate, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich celebrates as he arrives for a primary night rally after he was declared the winner January 21, 2012 in Columbia, South Carolina.

Columbia, South Carolina

Newt Gingrich rode a wave of momentum to a dramatic victory in Saturday night’s South Carolina primary, shocking observers who had twice written off his candidacy and setting up what could become a lengthy fight with Mitt Romney for the Republican presidential nomination.

Gingrich’s win capped an improbable comeback triggered by razor-sharp rhetoric and strong debate performances just days after the former Speaker finished near the bottom of the pack in the first two GOP primaries. With more than half of South Carolina’s precincts reporting, Gingrich cruised to victory with 41% of the vote, easily outpacing Romney’s 26%. Rick Santorum trailed with 18%, and after stellar showings in the first two states, Ron Paul brought up the rear with 13%.

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“This was a landslide victory, the political equivalent of a tsunami,” said Billy Wilkins, Gingrich’s South Carolina chair. According to exit polls, Gingrich won pluralities across the board – among men and women, conservatives and Tea Partyers, as well as voters who cited the ability to vanquish Barack Obama as their paramount concern. A television interview with his second wife, who claimed Gingrich proposed an “open marriage” before their divorce, inflicted little damage.

“People completely misunderstand what’s going on,” Gingrich told a huge, raucous crowd crammed into a Columbia ballroom Saturday night. “It’s not that I’m a good debater. It’s that I articulate the deepest felt values of the American people.”

For Romney, the defeat marked a bruising fall from the heights he reached after his win in New Hampshire, when he took a pair of victories and big lead into South Carolina hoping to sew up the nomination with a minimum of fuss. But he stumbled at debates with halting answers to questions about his tax returns and health care policy, becoming embroiled in a controversy that underlined his wealth. Meanwhile, Santorum was belatedly declared the winner in Iowa and Gingrich took off. Now he is looking at what could be a drawn-out contest– a fight his campaign is built to win, but which he surely preferred not to have. It is the first time in history that three different candidates have captured the first three states of a Republican primary campaign.

“This race is getting interesting,” Romney told supporters at a rally Saturday night. “We’re now three contests into a long primary season.” Santorum put it more succinctly: [Newt] “kicked butt,” he said. Paul, who will bypass Florida to concentrate on marshaling his resources in caucus states like Nevada and Maine, said he was gearing up for a “long, hard slog.”

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For Gingrich, this was not just a victory but also a validation. When his staff ditched him last summer amid an imbroglio over the campaign’s direction, Gingrich committed to running a lean, nimble operation that relied heavily on free media (he had little money and scant institutional support to raise it), his ability to capitalize on the glut of debates and bring crowds to their feet by filleting the media. On the trail, Gingrich likes to say that the staff exodus in June freed him to run the campaign he always wanted, wherein he exercised near-total control of strategy and messaging.

The day after the break, Gingrich called B.J. Van Gundy, the vice chair of the Georgia GOP and a longtime friend. “You’re still with me, right?” Gingrich said, according to Van Gundy, who says their half-hour conversation was upbeat. “He saw it as shucking off a bunch of consultants who wanted to tell him how to do things,” Van Gundy says. “Newt doesn’t need that. He’s the smartest guy in the room.”

If there was one thing Gingrich grasped early, it was that pundits were peering at the GOP primary race through the wrong lens. For months, the Republican primary seemed to hinge on the question of whether the base could agree on an alternative to Mitt Romney. But Gingrich didn’t win because he was the best not-Romney. He won because Romney didn’t have Gingrich’s gift for oratory and taste for knife-fighting.

Crisscrossing the state with Gingrich as the race swung his way over its closing days, voter after voter said they liked Romney just fine. “I think Romney’s a solid, reliable guy who has proved his expertise in business. At the same time, I never saw the fire in his belly,” says Dean Allen, 61, a Greenville financial planner and Tea Party activist. “He says the right things and I’m willing to forgive him for the positions he had that weren’t conservative. But Newt has the fire.”

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Soggy weather hadn’t extinguished that fire when Gingrich rolled into a campaign stop at Tommy’s County Ham House in Greenville, the hub of the conservative Upstate region, for a Saturday morning stop. In a scheduling twist that both campaigned called incidental, Romney’s camp somehow chose to hold an event at this greasy spoon at the exact same time, setting up a showdown outside where supporters of both camps hoisted flags and shouted slogans at each other. Newt’s camp was larger, more rambunctious and better organized; large contingents of Romney’s crew had come from out of state. The two candidates passed like ships in the night – Romney showed up early and departed. “Where’s Mitt?” Gingrich crowed upon arrival. “I was hoping we might have a debate.”

Strong debate performances propelled Gingrich and magnified his strengths. Electability – one of the pillars of Romney’s theory of the case – was crucial to South Carolina’s Republican voters, as it was in Iowa and New Hampshire. But here voters believed Gingrich’s rhetorical pyrotechnics were the best weapon the party had to dispatch Obama. He beat Romney by nine points among voters who said electability was paramount.

“Romney’s done it the expensive way,” says Judson Hill, a Georgia state senator and Gingrich friend, who says the campaign’s use of social media as an organizing tool was modeled in part on the success the Obama campaign enjoyed in 2008. “We can activate our base instantly.”

Now the race turns to Florida, where Gingrich aides and allies say he is better organized than it may seem and has a hefty base of enthusiasts. He once had a yawning lead in the Sunshine State polls as well, something the campaign feels is now back within reach. “Help me deliver the knockout punch in Florida,” he urged supporters on Twitter.

It’s a tall task. Florida is a massive state with 10 major media markets, tamping down the impact of retail campaigning. Even with another substantial cash infusion from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson–who reportedly committed to giving $5 million to Winning Our Future, a super PAC that backs Gingrich—the former Speaker can’t hope to compete with Romney financially in the state. Romney has spent well over $6 million on paid media in Florida already. Gingrich has yet to go up on air.

In the coming days, Floridians will almost certainly be inundated not just with Romney spots, but with testimonials from Capitol Hill veterans who worked with Gingrich during his speakership and came away convinced that he made a poor standard-bearer for the party. On Saturday night, Romney appeared to telegraph a strategy of punishing Gingrich for attacking his record at Bain Capital, slamming him – not by name – for deploying “the weapons of the left.”

But while his march to nomination once seemed nearly inevitable, Romney heads south wounded. He remains the favorite. But better-organized establishment candidates have been vanquished by hot upstarts before—including in Florida, as Charlie Crist, who lost to Tea Party darling Marco Rubio, and Bill McCollum, who lost the 2010 governor’s race to Rick Scott, know well. The picture of the race in Florida is fuzzy. No polls have been released since Monday’s debate, where the sputtering Gingrich campaign began picking up steam. Gingrich is tearing down the tracks now, and to hear him tell it, no one has a chance to stop him.

“I think, with your help, I will become your nominee,” he told the crowd Saturday night after praising Santorum, Paul and Romney in turn. All of a sudden, it didn’t sound so crazy.

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