If it wasn't clear before the results of the South Carolina primary Saturday night (January 21) made it crystal that former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is in for the fight of his political life in his quest to nab the Republican presidential nomination. After holding on to a double-digit lead as recently as Tuesday, Romney came up short in South Carolina, defeated by a surging Newt Gingrich. The final tally surprised many experts, with Gingrich taking around 40 percent of the vote to Romney's 27 percent.
Buoyed by two solid debate appearances this week, former House Speaker Gingrich managed to turn the tide in the first contest in the South, proving once again that the party faithful are not yet willing to fall into lockstep and give Romney a smooth ride to the nomination. Gingrich pulled off the upset victory despite a potentially crushing distraction Thursday in the form of an ABC News interview with his second ex-wife. In it, Marianne Gingrich claimed the ex-congressman had asked her to agree to an open marriage so he could carry on an affair with his now-third wife.
Romney started the week with a solid lead, but the distance between him and Gingrich shrunk in the days before the primary. In addition, on Thursday, the race was scrambled thanks to a trio of unforeseen events that further muddied the waters.
First, Republican leaders in Iowa announced that the final count in that state's caucus revealed that Romney's eight-point win over Rick Santorum was actually a 34-point loss, which handed the former Pennsylvania senator a Pyrrhic victory in that first-in-the-nation contest. A short time later, Texas Governor Rick Perry announced he was suspending his campaign and would be throwing his support behind Gingrich, which could solidify the former House leader's draw to the all-important bloc of Evangelical Christian voters. The third shoe to drop was the ABC interview.
By Friday night, a Romney adviser told CNN the race was "real tight," even as a Gingrich staffer predicted a victory after the candidate came in fourth place in the two previous primaries. Santorum finished well behind at 17 percent while Libertarian candidate Congressman Ron Paul pulled 13 percent of the vote. Before results were announced, CNN reported that exit polls show the most important quality for Republican voters is that a candidate can beat President Obama.
Experts told MTV News that if Romney landed his second win in a row, he might take the wind out of Gingrich's sails and get one step closer to a virtual lock on the nomination should he win the next test, the January 31 primary in Florida. A further black cloud over the Gingrich win for Romney: The winner of the S.C. primary has gone on to secure the Republican nomination in every election since 1980.
Long considered the front-runner and likely nominee, Romney has gone from looking like he would win an unprecedented three primaries in a row to start the season to just one victory and continuing questions about his appeal to the party's conservative base. Though his campaign continues to be far ahead of the rest of the field in fundraising, even if Romney can pull it out, the constant battering of his image and résumé by his rivals for the nomination could leave him deeply scarred by the time the general election rolls around.
According to Fox News, the bigger problems for Romney, though, based on some early exit polls from South Carolina, are that voters are concerned about his moderate stance on some issues and his Mormon faith. Romney is vying to be the first Mormon Republican presidential candidate.
With another close loss behind him, Romney turns his attention to Florida, a state that has proved pivotal in the last three elections and one that is now a virtual must-win in order to keep his campaign steaming forward.
For the second time in this election, Gingrich has stampeded back into the game and political experts said that his effort is, even if it goes no further, one of the finest examples of political savvy in memory.
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