Just how many political lives does Newt Gingrich have? It looks like South Carolina voters are about to give him one more.
Late polls indicate that Gingrich could win the state’s Republican presidential primary Saturday. Precincts will close at 7 pm ET.
“Gingrich may very well have a pretty big win tonight,” says Chip Felkel, a longtime Republican strategist in South Carolina who is not aligned with any candidate.
Just a week ago, it looked as if former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney would easily prevail, making his status as front-runner for the GOP nomination almost unassailable.
Romney may still come out ahead, but even so his victory margin does not look likely to be large enough to leave his competition behind.
Instead, it appears that the anti-Romney vote — which has bounced in past months from candidate to candidate or been divided into several small pieces — has now coalesced behind Gingrich, the former House speaker.
“One of the things the South Carolina contest has done is produce some unification of the anti-Romney conservatives,” says Jim Guth, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.
A Hectic Week
Guth says the state has never seen a campaign quite like this one. Nearly every ad on television and radio over the past week or so has been about politics, while both voicemail and snail mail boxes have been filled to overflowing with negative attacks and other campaign ads.
Romney was able to slough off complaints from Gingrich that, as chief of Bain Capital, he had been responsible for thousands of people losing their jobs.
Romney said in a debate Thursday that he expected attacks against capitalism from Democrats, but not his fellow Republicans. “Ours is the party of freedom, free enterprise,” he said.
But Romney’s personal finances proved to be a more salient issue. His refusal to release his income tax returns and revelations that millions of his own dollars have been invested offshore have been troubling to some voters, Guth says.
“They raised some doubts and gave a lot of marginal Romney people reason for thinking about some of the other candidates,” Guth says. “One way or the other, those things haven’t helped.”
Gingrich’s campaign appeared moribund last June, when the bulk of his campaign staff quit en masse. He leapt to the top of the polls in November, only to have his support seriously eroded by a volley of attack ads launched by a superPAC supporting Romney.
Gingrich finished a distant fourth in both the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary. But his pugnacious performances in the two South Carolina debates this week served to energize many South Carolina conservatives.
The standing ovation he won at the debate on Monday was unprecedented in the memory of most longtime political observers. But he repeated the trick on Thursday, winning over the crowd with his attack on debate moderator John King of CNN for asking him about complaints lodged by one of his ex-wives that he had asked for an open marriage.
“What I underestimated was the anger of the electorate,” says Scott Huffmon, a pollster associated with Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C. “He tapped into that near-perfectly the last two debates.”
Gingrich received another gift on Thursday, when Texas Gov. Rick Perry dropped out of the race and endorsed him.
“I am the only conservative who has an opportunity to stop a Massachusetts moderate and I need the vote of every conservative in South Carolina today,” Gingrich said at a Greenville rally Saturday.
The Rest Of The Field
Rick Santorum received some good news late Friday, when the Iowa Republican Party declared him the official winner of GOP caucuses there on Jan. 3. Initial results had shown Romney the leader with an 8-vote margin.
But Santorum hasn’t been able to capitalize on the fact that he was able to come from the back of the pack to tie Romney in the year’s first contest. He finished fifth in New Hampshire and, despite having won the support of a group of prominent evangelical leaders last weekend, there is already speculation that he may drop out of the race if he finishes poorly in South Carolina.
Santorum vows to press on.
The fourth remaining candidate, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, showed in both Iowa and New Hampshire that he has attracted a committed core of supporters that is much larger than during his previous run in 2008.
But most Republican observers believe that the same issues that have won Paul many fans — including an almost isolationist approach to foreign policy — put a ceiling on the amount of support he can attract.
The Road Ahead
That leaves Gingrich as the most formidable challenger left standing against Romney. Romney has had a sizable lead in polls in Florida, which will be the next state to vote on Jan. 31.
But that lead — like his advantage in South Carolina — could evaporate quickly. The race has remained remarkably fluid.
Many observers believe that Romney has the organizational and fundraising strength to prevail over the course of what may be a long nomination fight that will quickly spread to many more states.
But Gingrich’s surge in South Carolina has made that a best-case scenario for Romney, who just days ago appeared confident of being able to seal the deal with a win in the campaign’s third contest.
“This thing ain’t over tonight, obviously,” Felkel says, “but if Romney’s going to do better in Florida, they have to have better answers on these tax questions.”