Three Republican primaries so far, and three different winners. Newt Gingrich stormed to a commanding victory on Saturday evening, taking 40% of the vote compared to Mitt Romney’s 28%. While Gingrich was always expected to do well here, and Romney was always expected to struggle, the margin of Gingrich’s victory suggests a real fight is developing for the nomination.
Gingrich wasn’t looking too good this time last week, and a TV interview with his ex-wife was expected to sink his campaign. But that interview didn’t really do any damage and Gingrich now has momentum. He still faces an uphill battle to overtake Romney, but the key thing from the point of view of the Gingrich camp will be that the South Carolina victory will revive fears about Romney’s candidacy.
The blunt truth for Romney is that despite all the money, all the campaigning and all the prominent support, he has barely clung to the lead. He should be miles ahead. He secured a statistical dead-heat with Rick Santorum in Iowa, a result that has been interpreted by most as a Santorum win, and then went on to win New Hampshire, his traditional support base. He needed to show he could take South Carolina, and he failed.
Rick Santorum was third, thanks to the support of religious leaders, while Ron Paul trailed in with what for his supporters must be seen as a disappointing fourth-placed finish. But in this topsy turvy race, neither man can be counted out just yet. Logic suggests Romney should have this in the bag by now, but time and again he has failed to put in a convincing performance.
The next primary is on January 31st in Florida. Romney is expected to do well, and victory there would put him back on solid ground. He has a run of favourable states coming up and could regain momentum. But the danger is that if Gingrich, Paul or Santorum expose any more cracks in his support, the Romney facade will start to crumble, people will start to doubt him and will jump ship, and his candidacy could yet fall apart just as it did in 2008. He has the money, the power and the name recognition, but Republican voters still don’t seem to like Mitt Romney very much.