Newt Strikes Back, Surges in South Carolina Primary

The former House speaker positions himself as the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich staged a political comeback in South Carolina’s presidential primary election on Saturday. In the state that has selected the Republican nominee in every race since 1980, Gingrich appears to have beaten the frontrunner Mitt Romney to victory.

Gingrich surged in South Carolina after Romney won the first primary in New Hampshire two weeks ago with a 40 percent share of the vote. The former Massachusetts governor has largely failed to enthuse right-wing voters although he may stand the best chance of beating the incumbent, President Barack Oama, in a general election.

South Carolina is considered more conservative than New Hampshire although voters who are registered as independent were able to participate in both primaries.

Days ahead of the vote, Gingrich won the endorsement of Texas governor Rick Perry who ended his campaign after coming in fifth in Iowa in early January and sixth in New Hampshire. Former ambassador Jon Huntsman, who dropped out of the race despite finishing third in New Hampshire, endorsed Romney, if reluctantly.

Perry’s departure leaves Rick Santorum the only other rival for the social conservative vote. Despite intense scrutiny of Gingrich’s marital past in recent days, which shouldn’t appeal to evangelical voters, Santorum failed to capitalize on his strong showing in Iowa and barely managed to beat Congressman Ron Paul of Texas for third place.

Paul is unlikely to win the nomination because of his libertarian and noninterventionist policy positions but could stay in the race to gather enough delegates to influence the party platform at the national convention in August when Republicans formally nominate their presidential candidate.

Santorum, who lacks the resources and organization that Romney has as well as the momentum that now befalls Gingrich, could struggle to compete in Florida and Nevada which are the next primary states. Gingrich doesn’t have a significant presence in these states either but he has now positioned himself as the most viable conservative alternative to Mitt Romney.

Impressive debate performances have helped Gingrich surge to the top of the field but his rhetoric is also a weakness. The former House speaker, who led Republicans to their first congressional majority in more than forty years in 1994, has a tendency to inflate his personal role in historical events.

In an interview with Fox News last month, Gingrich said that not only had he helped President Ronald Reagan “develop supply-side economics” during the 1980s; “I helped lead the effort to defeat communism in the Congress,” he claimed. A dubious assertion for a legislator who had little to do with foreign policy and defense.

Although he has been in politics for decades and made a fortunate as a commentator and lobbyist after he was forced to resign as speaker in 1999, Gingrich told Radio Iowa in December that he was “the most experienced outsider in modern terms” and willing to “challenge the establishment” without regard to “Republican or Democratic political correctness.”

To the extent that he’s challenged Republican policy, it has not been very popular. In May of last year, he denounced his party’s plans to privatize public health-care support for seniors as “right-wing social engineering” and “radical change” — even as his own Medicare reform plan calls for optional premium support too. Indeed, the only difference between congressional Republicans’ and Gingrich’s plans is that the latter would keep Medicare intact for people who chose to be on it while both aim to enhance competition among private insurers.

Whether Gingrich manages to carry his momentum into Florida remains to be seen. Romney currently enjoys a 20 percentage point lead in the polls there. If Santorum were to drop out though, that could be a boost to Gingrich’s campaign. Florida will award all of its fifty delegates to whoever wins the primary in the Sunshine State.

Twenty-five delegates are at stake in South Carolina where it will take 1,144 votes to win the nomination at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida in August.

Eleven of South Carolina’s delegates are awarded to the statewide winner. Each of the state’s seven congressional districts has two delegates to allocate proportionately. Romney and Gingrich could split those remaining fourteen votes. Exact results are pending.