Gingrich wins SC GOP primary, beating Romney
By Michael O'Brien, msnbc.com
Updated 7:00 p.m. ET
Newt Gingrich has won the South Carolina Republican primary, capping off a remarkable comeback for his presidential bid that reshapes the trajectory of the battle for the GOP nomination.
Based on early exit polls, NBC News projects Gingrich as the winner of the primary, while former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will finish second.
The results mark the end of a tumultuous week in politics that saw Gingrich erase and then overcome the lead Romney had in the Palmetto State following his victory in the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary. Gingrich came on strong in the closing days of the campaign, looking to rally under his banner the many conservatives unwilling to get behind Romney, who had sought to posture himself as the eventual nominee.
Gingrich's performance in South Carolina was driven in thanks to late deciders, who broke decisively in his direction in the last few days of the campaign. That stretch saw two debate performances by Gingrich, on Monday and Thursday nights. Almost two-thirds of voters said the debates were an important factor in their decision, and Gingrich won about half of them.
More broadly, core elements of the GOP base in South Carolina – conservatives, Tea Party supporters and evangelical Christians – broke for Gingrich. And the former speaker even edged Romney in two important constituencies for the former Massachusetts governor: voters who said electability in November was their most important concern in a nominee, and voters who said the economy was their top issue.
The results upset the conventional wisdom in the race, which had set expectations for Romney to score a knockout blow against his competitors with a win in the Palmetto State.
Gingrich’s victory reshapes the race, at a minimum extending the primary contest through the Jan. 31 primary in Florida. The South Carolina results underscore Romney’s lingering inability to overcome skepticism from conservatives about electing him as their standard-bearer against President Obama this fall.
Gingrich had erased Romney’s lead by abandoning his previous pledge to wage a “relentlessly positive” campaign. The former speaker eventually embraced a strategy of drawing strong contrasts with Romney and benefited from the negative advertising run on his behalf by a super PAC – a practice Gingrich loudly denounced in Iowa, where he saw his poll numbers collapse amid attacks by a pro-Romney super PAC.
“I hope to win S.C.” Gingrich said Friday night in Orangeburg, “God willing we'll win, and tomorrow night will be very interesting and then Florida will be even more interesting and I'm sure you'll want to come with us.”
His victory provides, if nothing else, a symbolic imprimatur; the winner of the South Carolina primary has gone on to win the nomination in each Republican primary since the contest’s inception in 1980.
Voters headed to the polls in stormy conditions throughout most of the Palmetto State that could hold down turnout in some areas. County election officials reported light turnout in some areas, and heavier than expected voter rolls in other areas.
The South Carolina results capped one of the most tumultuous weeks in the presidential campaign thus far, a week that saw the veneer of inevitability the Romney campaign had built for itself erode by the end.
Recertified results in the Iowa caucuses found that he had actually lost the contest by a handful of votes to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. And Romney has fought to withstand some of the most intense scrutiny he’s faced during the campaign; critics have assailed his private equity career and demanded Romney release his tax returns – demands which only reached a fever pitch after Romney estimated he pays an effective rate of 15 percent of his income in taxes.
Moreover, Romney’s performance in South Carolina will speak volumes about his fractious relationship with movement conservatives. He’s struggled at times to break through a ceiling on his support from those voters, who are skeptical of Romney’s past conversion on abortion rights and his embrace of authorship of a health care law as governor that closely resembles Obama’s 2010 reform law.
Romney had largely stuck to message in South Carolina, where he’s campaigned since winning Jan. 10’s New Hampshire primary, by keeping his focus on Obama and posturing himself more as a presumptive nominee.
But in an acknowledgement of Gingrich’s late push, the Romney campaign has also revived the attacks on the former speaker they used to great effect in Iowa to tamp down Gingrich’s December surge.
“Let's have him describe his relationships in Washington,” Romney said Saturday in Greenville, turning up the heat on Gingrich and highlighting the ex-speaker’s work on behalf of troubled mortgage giant Freddie Mac. “If people think Washington is the answer, if people think someone who spent the great majority of their life in Washington, I'll be surprised."
Romney’s campaign appears poised to make that argument even more sharply in Florida. They circulated a “flashback” video on Saturday reminding voters of the ethics investigation Gingrich had faced during his speakership.
Nonetheless, the fact that Gingrich has arrived at the precipice of political resurrection – again – this cycle is itself remarkable.
Political observers had questioned when, not if, he would drop out after suffering missteps at the outset of his campaign that led to the defection of virtually all of his top staff last June. But Gingrich stuck with it and climbed to the top of the polls in Iowa, only to see his numbers implode again after weathering attacks from super PACs and Texas Rep. Ron Paul’s campaign.
In South Carolina, the former speaker has been aided by a variety of factors contributing to his potential comeback. He’s scored major points with voters with a couple of strong debate performances this week, particularly by way of launching acerbic attacks on the media. His angry refusal to answer allegations made by an ex-wife topped headlines coming out of a debate on Thursday – the same day that saw Texas Gov. Rick Perry drop his own campaign and endorse Gingrich.
The winnowed field (Jon Huntsman also ended his campaign and endorsed Romney), only reduced the number of candidates threatening to divide the anti-Romney vote in South Carolina.
Santorum, crowned the winner of the Iowa caucuses upon further review of the vote totals, had doggedly criticized both Romney and Gingrich in hopes of rallying conservatives behind his unflashy, if consistent, record.
"You know most of the polls had us down in the fourth place area and we were hoping that we can finish third or maybe even a good third," he said in Chapin on Saturday, vowing to continue in his campaign into the next contest in Florida.
The Romney campaign is hoping that contest, which awards all of the delegates to its winner, features a primary closed to registered Republicans in a large swing state, will be its firewall. It’s a more expensive campaign to wage because of its multiple, expensive media markets, and is seen as a test of organizational strength.
Romney’s advantage there is one of the reasons the Paul campaign, which is polling third in South Carolina, at 16 percent, in a NBC News-Marist poll earlier this week, has elected to skip the next battle in Florida in favor of focusing on caucuses.
NBC’s Garrett Haake, Alex Moe and Andrew Rafferty contributed.
Say racist shit to pander to a state full of racist shitheads and win? SHOCKING!