COLUMBIA, S.C. - Newt Gingrich, buried in an avalanche of attack ads in Iowa and deemed irrelevant after the results in New Hampshire, rebounded to victory last night in the South Carolina Republican primary, giving the two-fisted candidate a chance to consolidate conservative support and emerge as the strongest challenger to the formerly high-flying Mitt Romney.
The win capped a stunning, rapid reversal of fortune. After trailing badly here a week ago, Gingrich ended up with 40.4 percent of the vote, easily outpacing Romney’s 27.8 percent, according to results from 100 percent of the precincts. Rick Santorum placed third with 17 percent, and Ron Paul had 13 percent.
In a victory speech laced with digs at “the elites in New York and Washington,’’ Gingrich went out of his way to praise Santorum, Paul, and even Romney, indicating he is eager to unite the long-fractured opposition to the former Massachusetts governor into a coherent and potent force.
“We don’t have the kind of money that at least one of the other candidates has,’’ he said, referring to Romney. “But we do have the ideas and people.’’
Gingrich’s victory dashed Romney’s hopes of quickly clinching the nomination and set the stage for a drawn-out, potentially monthslong, fight. Last night, Romney braced his supporters for a long battle while delivering some pointed warnings.
“When my opponents attack success and free enterprise, they’re not only attacking me, they’re attacking every person who dreams of a better future,’’ Romney said. Without singling out Gingrich by name, he added: “He’s attacking you.’’
The challenge hinted Romney is ready to mount a more robust defense of his record as head of Bain Capital. In South Carolina, Gingrich, backed by a super PAC supporting his candidacy, assailed Romney’s time at the firm, saying he stripped companies for profit.
With Santorum’s narrow win in Iowa, and Romney’s solid victory in New Hampshire, three candidates have won the first three contests, underscoring how the Republican electorate has split geographically and ideologically at a time when party leaders are eager to unite and take on President Obama.
Gingrich’s campaign was all but dead last summer, after his aides quit en masse, and then declared dead again after disappointing fourth-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire. But he can now claim that history is on his side, because South Carolina has picked the eventual Republican nominee in every election since 1980.
A surprisingly broad coalition, energized by Gingrich’s pugnacious performances in the two debates last week, carried him to victory and revived concerns about Romney’s ability to appeal to the party’s conservative base.
Romney has long been the most organized, disciplined, and well-funded candidate. But last night’s result showed how he has struggled to translate those advantages into a gut-level appeal to Republican voters. With his cutting, media-bashing debate performances, Gingrich tapped into voters’ desire for a bolder defense of conservative principles.
Exit polls indicated that more than half of voters said the debates were a major factor in their decision, according to the Associated Press. In a state known as a conservative proving ground, Gingrich also had twice as much as support as Romney among Tea Party followers and evangelicals. According to CNN, Gingrich even won female voters, a group that has favored Romney and that some predicted would shun Gingrich because of his marital infidelities.
Almost half of voters said the most important trait they sought in a candidate was the ability to beat Obama in November. And even though Romney argues that he is the most electable Republican, those voters also favored Gingrich. Only about 4 in 10 said they would support Romney enthusiastically should he win the nomination.
Romney must now find a way to court disaffected conservatives without abandoning his core message: that he is the most electable candidate, with the deepest economic experience. In South Carolina, that message was threatened by demands that he release his tax returns and by persistent attacks on his past support for abortion rights and the universal health care law he signed in Massachusetts.
With Gingrich poised to channel anti-Romney sentiment in Florida and beyond, Santorum and Paul will have to revive their campaigns on a costlier national stage.
Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, was endorsed in Texas last weekend by a group of conservative pastors who tried to rally religious conservatives to his side. He was also belatedly declared the winner of the Iowa caucuses, but those results seemed to hamper Romney more than boost Santorum.
Last night, after a disappointing finish, Santorum vowed to carry on to Florida.
“It’s a wide-open race,’’ he said. “Join the fight.’’
Paul was unable to capitalize on his second-place finish in New Hampshire, and the Texas congressman is not planning to campaign in Florida. Instead, he will turn his focus to smaller states with caucuses, where lower voter turnout means he can use his army of followers to drive his supporters to the polls.
Paul will probably remain in the race for the duration, in part to influence the party platform at the convention. But he acknowledges that chances are slim that he will become the nominee.
“This is the beginning of a long, hard slog,’’ Paul said last night. “We will continue to do this, there is no doubt about it.’’
Gingrich’s victory capped an extraordinarily tumultuous week that began with Romney holding a double-digit lead in South Carolina. Then Santorum was declared the winner in Iowa on a recount, stripping Romney of his narrow win in that state. Rick Perry dropped out and endorsed Gingrich, calling him “a conservative visionary.’’ Gingrich’s former wife asserted that he had asked for an “open marriage’’ in 1999. But Gingrich turned questions about that episode into a denunciation of the “elite media’’ during a debate last week, a moment that seemed to crystallize conservative enthusiasm for the former speaker.
The race will now shift, away from small states where glad-handing and town hall meetings play a crucial role, to larger states where television advertisements and debates will be more pivotal than they have been. After Florida, which votes Jan. 31, the next five weeks will feature contests in Nevada, Colorado, Minnesota, Maine, Arizona, and Michigan.
Romney has several advantages that will help him in this new phase. He has more money in his campaign war chest, which will allow him to blanket the states with ads. That will be particularly crucial in Florida, which has multiple, costly media markets. A super PAC that supports Romney has been deluging the state with direct-mail fliers and ads attacking Gingrich.
Super PACs, a new fund-raising phenomenon that can solicit unlimited donations but cannot coordinate with a candidate’s campaign, have been a contentious and influential element in the race. A super PAC supporting Romney led the negative ad barrage credited with sinking Gingrich’s standing - and hopes - in Iowa.
Gingrich will face the biggest test yet of his unconventional campaign, which relies more on YouTube-ready debate performances than on grass-roots networks. To bolster his prospects in Florida, he is hoping to capitalize on the two debates scheduled for later this week - one tomorrow night in Tampa, and a second on Thursday night in Jacksonville.
Romney, after some hesitation, agreed yesterday to participate in both of those debates, even though his aides have grumbled that there have been too many debates and that they have created a circus-like atmosphere that does not always highlight Romney’s buttoned-down bona fides.