Gingrich wins big in South Carolina, heads to Florida as race heats up

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
Font Size:

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has won the South Carolina primary by a landslide, with numbers so big that the major networks called the race almost immediately after the polls closed.

Heading into South Carolina, Gingrich’s campaign was lagging after poor performances in Iowa and New Hampshire — and drawing criticism for ads that his Super PAC was running attacking former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for his time at Bain Capital.

But Gingrich turned it around and surged to victory. With 99 percent of precincts reporting results, he was winning every single county, which would mean he would take all of the states’ 25 delegates. The overall vote count showed a 40–28 advantage for Gingrich over Romney.

“With your help, we are now moving to Florida and beyond,” Gingrich told a raucous, enthusiastic crowd at his victory party in the state capital of Columbia.

The speech was a positive and optimistic affair, with rousing pronouncements on American exceptionalism.

Listening to the other three candidates’ speeches earlier in the evening, Gingrich said, “I was struck with how much they reflected the openness of the American system.” A far cry from his bitter not-quite-concession speech in Iowa, Gingrich’s comments about his three remaining competitors were generally positive. While he might disagree with them at times, he offered, they were prime examples of what makes the electoral system in the United States great and enviable.

“You look at the four of us: We are proof that you can come from a wide array of backgrounds, and in America, you have a chance to try to make your case, no matter what the elites think,” Gingrich said.

“We want to run not a Republican campaign — we want to run an American campaign,” Gingrich went on, to cheers. “We believe if we unleash the American people, we can rebuild the America that we love,” he added.

“I think with your help, I will become your nominee,” Gingrich predicted.

But with a different winner in each of the first three statewide contests, nothing is decided. The stage is set, rather, for a long and drawn-out primary.

“We haven’t solved anything,” veteran Republican strategist Chip Felkel told The Daily Caller. “The party is still undecided about who they want to be the standard-bearer.”

Gingrich, Romney, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul are almost certainly in it for the long haul.

“For political nerds, this is like March Madness now,” Chuck Warren, a Republican political consultant, emailed TheDC.

Moving forward, both Romney and Gingrich will have to overcome some stumbling blocks.

Gingrich, Felkel explained, will have to figure out a way to appeal to independent voters. And Romney “has to figure out how he gets past what appears to be somewhat of a glass ceiling.”

As the race extends beyond the early states, Gingrich will also have to contend with the fact that he “failed to qualify [for the ballot] in a number of states,” added Warren Tompkins, a senior advisor to the Romney campaign.

But Florida is a different beast altogether. With a large Hispanic population, candidates will likely have to deal with immigration issues. And with a large population of elderly retirees, Medicare will be very much in the spotlight.

Newt will head in with “momentum,” Republican political consultant Tony Fabrizio emailed from his home base in Florida. But the Sunshine State, he cautioned, is one where a large number of people exercise the option to vote early.

“Romney held big lead in Florida up to a day or so ago, and there are about 200k [200,000] absentee votes already cast that one would assume heavily favor Romney,” Fabrizio told TheDC. “So how big turnout is will also determine Newt’s fate. If those 200k are 10 percent of turnout versus 20 percent, it makes a difference.”

Romney has spent more time in the state, pointed out Joe Kildea, a Republican strategist who worked on Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s campaign.

“Besides having the money and campaign infrastructure, Mitt has spent a lot of time in Florida. From The Villages with Rick Scott to South Florida with Rubio, Romney has had the chance to shake the hands of lots of voters in the Sunshine State over the past few year,” Kildea emailed. “Newt might have some momentum but we’ll see if he has the money and infrastructure to compete.”

Florida, Felkel pointed out, is “almost like a national primary because it’s such a big state.” Romney’s campaign will have a financial and organizational advantage.

Gingrich acknowledged this in his victory speech.

“We don’t have the kind of money that at least one of the candidates does,” he said. “But we have ideas and we do have people. And we proved here in South Carolina that people, powered with the right ideas, beats big money.”

Paul campaign spokesman Jesse Benton has said the Texas Congressman will not make a major play for Florida. “We’re not investing heavy financial resources there,” Benton said in the spin room following Thursday’s debate. “We’re focused downstream where we think the cost per delegate is more in line with what we can afford.”

Rick Santorum, who has less money than the other candidates and has been unable to grab momentum even after a surprise win in Iowa, may consider leaving the race. Though the campaign emailed out a schedule for the next few days in Florida Saturday night, indicating that he did not plan to drop out, one strategist emailed: “I’d bet a lot of people are pushing Santorum to endorse Newt ahead of Florida to unite the anti-Romney vote. Endorsements usually don’t matter but this might unite the tea-party instead of just having a splintered anti-Romney block. With a little more money that could be enough to push Newt ahead.”

Follow Alexis on Twitter