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UPDATE: Newt Gingrich fired at Mitt Romney Sunday, saying that he won the South Carolina primary partly because of his “authenticity.” Speaking with CBS’ Bob Schieffer, Gingrich called Romney a “very good salesman” with a “really weak product,” who has been “dancing on eggs trying to find a version of Romney that will work.” He refused to answer when asked whether that meant Romney was a fake but he didn’t really need to.
“I think the number one thing people look for in difficult times is authenticity. They want somebody who is what he seems to be, somebody who is comfortable with himself, somebody who is able to have force in what he's saying or she's saying, because they actually believe it,” Gingrich added.
Earlier, Romney had announced he would release his 2010 tax returns, saying the issue had become “a distraction.” Gingrich quickly praised the move on NBC: “I commend him for it,” he said. “I think it’s exactly the right thing to do and as far as I’m concerned that particular issue is now set aside and we can go and talk about other bigger, and more important things,” reports the Boston Globe.
Meanwhile, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie went after Gingrich, saying the former speaker “has embarrassed the party over time. Whether he’ll do it again in the future I don’t know, but Gov. Romney never has.” He warned Republicans that “sometimes past is prologue.” Christie also praised Romney’s decision to release his tax records, noting that “what the American people are going to see is someone who’s been extraordinarily successful. I don’t think the American people want a failure as president. I think they want someone who succeeded at whatever they’ve tried.”
UPDATE Sunday 10:20 a.m.: What was supposed to be a head-to-head match-up didn’t even end up being close. Final results from the South Carolina primary have Newt Gingrich in first place with 40 percent of the vote and 12 percentage points ahead of Mitt Romney, who only last week had a double-digit lead in most polls.
Trying to do some damage control Sunday morning, Romney told Fox News that he will release his 2010 tax return and a 2011 estimate on Tuesday. "We made a mistake holding off as long as we did and it just was a distraction," the former Massachusetts governor said, adding that they would be posted on his website.
In his speech to supporters Saturday night, Gingrich thanked “everyone in South Carolina who decided to be with us in changing Washington.” He praised his Republican opponents, and saved criticism for his favorite targets: “The elites in Washington and New York [who] have no understanding, no care, no connection, no reliability.” He also directly targeted Obama saying that he’s “so weak he makes Jimmy Carter look strong.”
For his part, Mitt Romney congratulated Gingrich but lobbed some thinly veiled criticism at the former House speaker. “Our party cannot be led to victory by someone who also has never run a business, and never run a state,” Romney declared. "We cannot defeat [President Obama] with a candidate who has joined in that very assault on free enterprise." He never mentioned Gingrich by name but the message was clear, notes Holly Bailey at Yahoo News.
Now it’s on to Florida, and if there’s one thing everyone can agree on is that Gingrich will have a much tougher time there. The former House speaker was able to win South Carolina through a series of strong debate performances and an unconventional campaign that benefited from Romney’s errors that managed to once again raise doubts about the man who was supposed to sail to the nomination. But South Carolina’s victory wasn’t all about Gingrich’s abilities as a politician. “He also served as a vessel for rank-and-file voters to send a message,” writes Politico.
Yet things won’t be so easy in the Sunshine State. It costs around $2 million a week to advertise across the 10 major media markets in the state, and so far Romney “has effectively been running unopposed in Florida,” reports the Los Angeles Times. Despite Gingrich’s victory Saturday, it’s clear Romney has better resources and organization. “His campaign long has prepared for a protracted contest,” writes the Washington Post’s Dan Balz. “Gingrich is riding the momentum of someone who twice went through near-death experiences.” Florida will provide “an interesting test for how a traditional campaign organization can stack up against the wave of momentum” that Gingrich will bring from his victory, writes the New York Times.
Whether Gingrich will manage a surge in Florida, where he currently has a significant disadvantage, remains to be seen. What does seem clear though is that Romney’s dreams that the nomination race would be wrapped up by Florida have effectively vanished, notes the Associated Press. Still, even if Gingrich somehow manages to beat the odds and win Florida, “his viability as a candidate who can go the distance is unclear,” notes the Miami Herald. Gingrich isn’t even on the ballot in some states.
It’s now widely expected that Romney’s campaign will think twice before agreeing to any more debates that will give opponents more opportunities to shine through free media. Instead Romney will “seek to defeat them the old fashioned way – with money and organization,” writes the National Journal. First though, the candidates will face off again in Tampa on Monday night. It will give us the first hints of whether Romney can “turn the page on difficult questions about his wealth,” as Politico puts it, and whether he can directly attack the other person in what has effectively become a two-man contest.
UPDATE Saturday 8:58 p.m.: Newt Gingrich did it. The former House speaker pulled off an astounding turnaround in South Carolina and proved Saturday that Republicans aren’t quite ready to hand the nomination over to Mitt Romney. CNN reports that exit polls showed Gingrich with 38 percent of the vote, while Romney received 29 percent. As expected Rick Santorum came in third, with 17 percent of the vote, and Rep. Ron Paul, a close fourth with 15 percent. Neither gave any signs they were ready to drop out of the race.
Only last week it seemed Gingrich’s candidacy was over but, with the help of a few stellar debate performances, he managed to once become the Romney alternative that conservative Republicans have been looking for. As expected, Gingrich did particularly well with conservatives, tea party supporters and born-again Christians, reports the Associated Press. Most importantly though, Gingrich for the first time beat Romney among those who said they mostly cared about picking someone who could beat President Barack Obama. Gingrich also won among women, who had been widely expected to turn against the twice-divorced Washington insider.
A majority of South Carolina voters said they decided on their vote over the past few days, and about two-thirds said the debates were an important factor in their decision, notes the Washington Post. Gingrich’s victory “effectively resets the Republican nominating contest for the next important test a week from Tuesday in Florida,” notes the New York Times. For the first time since 1980, three different GOP candidates won contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Now, “the party cannot avoid a wrenching and perhaps lengthy nomination fight,” writes the AP. “It’s soul-searching time for Republicans. It might not be pretty.”
UPDATE Saturday 3:31 p.m.: The National Weather Service has issued a tornado watch for 14 counties in South Carolina. The alert extends until 8 p.m. and polls close at 7 p.m. meaning that it could affect turnout. As of early afternoon, "turnout was supotty statewide," notes South Carolina's the State. There was rain in much of the upstate and central portions of South Carolina, with possible thunderstorms. That could end up affecting the results since, as the State notes, it's commonly accepted that the upstate areas are important to Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, while the southern part of the state that has fewer weather concerns is more important to Mitt Romney.
The Wall Street Journal points to a new poll from American Research Group that shows Gingrich with a 14 percentage point lead over Romney. Perhaps most interesting is that the survey did not show any kind of gender gap with those favoring Gingrich.
POST Saturday 12:17 p.m.: Only a week ago it seemed like Mitt Romney’s victory was assured. It was only a matter of time until he could swat off his pesky rivals and their rollercoaster bursts of popularity that seemed to disappear as quickly as they arrived. But now Newt Gingrich looks to be getting a second chance, and Romney is busy lowering expectations, acknowledging he could very well lose Saturday.
What happened? It can be summarized in two words: debates and money. Gingrich had two strong debate performances over the last week and his resurgence is particularly notable because it coincided with scandalous revelations from a former spouse. In Thursday night’s debate, “he seemingly accomplished a political miracle,” notes Politico. “Turning an accusation by his ex-wife that he wanted an ‘open marriage’ into a thunderous applause line.” But he also has Romney to thank. The former Massachusetts governor once again managed to make Republicans grow uneasy about the prospect of his nomination by fumbling on questions about his wealth. Suddenly, “a question hung over Romney’s campaign,” writes Reuters, “Why does he have such difficulty answering questions about his money?” As one GOP strategist tells CBS News, the problem isn’t quite Romney’s vast personal fortune but the former governor’s “tremendous level of discomfort talking about his finances.”
Romney has reason to worry. Polls show his strong lead vanishing and that South Carolina has now become exactly what political journalists have long yearned for: a real horse race. Talking Points Memo’s Poll Average puts Gingrich at 35.7 percent, Romney at 26.4 percent, Rick Santorum at 13.9 percent, and Ron Paul at 12.8 percent. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight forecast gives Gingrich an 82 percent chance of winning South Carolina. The former speaker’s surge in South Carolina has come hand-in-hand with a Romney slump nationally. A new Gallup poll shows Romney’s lead shrinking from as much as 23 percentage points to 10.
A Gingrich victory tonight wouldn’t just keep the nomination race going to Florida’s Jan. 31 primary, but would also “break a long-standing pattern in Republican races,” notes the Washington Post. “It would mean the first three contests had been won by three different people, a further sign of how unsettled the contest has been.” As McClatchy reminds readers, South Carolina is particularly important considering that no Republican has won the nomination without clinching that state. Of course, if Romney does manage to eke out a victory it would mean the nomination race is all but over.
“People may be voting not so much for Gingrich, but just to keep the primaries going,” said Kendra Stewart, an associate professor of political science at the College of Charleston. The New York Times talks to people on the ground and says that voters really don’t know what to think and despite endless debates and inescapable political ads, they still haven’t decided which way to go. “In a state known for its fickle, independent political nature, people appear to be waiting until they step into a voting both to decide,” notes the Times.
Even if Gingrich were to win tonight though, it’s important to remember that even his opponents recognize Romney is by far the strongest candidate. But his “procession of errors has been striking,” writes the Hill. He has made his vulnerabilities even more evident over the past week and it has led to growing doubts about the viability of Romney as a candidate within the Republican Party.And ultimately, as the Los Angeles Times writes, "a bolt-from-the-blue Gingrich win here could potentially do to Romney what Barack Obama's upstart win in Iowa did to Hilary Clinton in 2008--significantly dent Romney’s aura of inevitability."