Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who just a week ago was considered political road kill, staged a stunning upset in South Carolina Saturday by besting the front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, by almost 12 percentage points.
With a double-digit lead in the polls, it was abundantly clear to all political observers -- with the sole of exception of Gingrich himself -- that South Carolina was safely in Romney's column. But Gingrich worked overtime, thrashing his opponents with unrelenting rage and clearly outperforming them in the two debates leading up to the vote. This paid off on Saturday -- big time. The final tally showed Gingrich garnering no less than 40 percent of the vote and putting Romney a distant second, with only 28% support.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul capped the top tier list, winning 17% and 13% respectively.
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After the results were announced, an emotional Gingrich addressed his supporters, and thanked them. "It is very humbling and very sobering to have so many people who so deeply want their country to get back on the right track," Gingrich said, adding, "With your help, we are now moving to Florida and beyond."
Gingrich also played down the notion that his late surge in the polls was a product of a string of successful debate performances. "It's not that I am a good debater, it's that I articulate the deepest felt values of the American people." The over-arching tone of Gingrich's victory speech was one of conciliation, with the candidate refusing to attack his Republican rivals, including the one he is battling neck-and-neck.
After praising the other contenders, he had kind words for Romney, "with whom I disagree on many issues [but he] is nonetheless a good example of America - hard working, very successful." Throughout a significant part of the speech Gingrich attacked what he considers the "East Coast" establishment, saying: "So many people who are so concerned about jobs, about medical costs, about the everyday parts of life ... who feel that the elites in Washington and New York have no understanding, no care, no concern, no reliability, and in fact do not represent them at all."
Romney did not share the same conciliatory note in his concession speech, lashing out at his main Republican rival and equating him to the current president. "President Barack Obama has no experience running a business and no experience running a state. Our party can’t be led to victory by somebody who also has never run a business and never run a state." He further accused Gingrich of adopting some of the Left's rhetoric. "We cannot defeat that president with a candidate who has joined with that very assault on free enterprise. When my opponents attack success and free enterprise, they are not only attacking me, they are attacking every person who dreams of a better future."
He went on to warn Gingrich that his approach may backfire. "If Republican leaders want to join this president in demonizing success and disparaging conservative values then they are not going to be fit to be our nominee," Romney said.
On Sunday, a day after the South Carolina turnaround suddenly made the race a free-for-all, the main Republican contenders began gearing up for the next big showdown: Florida, which holds its primaries on Jan. 31. Appearing on CBS's "Face the Nation" on Sunday, Gingrich reverted to a combative tone, attacking Romney for trying to please voters at the expense of his core convictions.
"So you end up with a guy who is, I think, a very good salesman. Very -- very much wants to sell. But he has a really weak product. And so I think he's been dancing on eggshells trying to figure out how to find a version of Romney that will work," Gingrich said.
Gingrich also said during the interview that he would be willing to come back on the show to debate Romney one-on-one "for a full hour."
Romney has not yet responded to Gingrich's debate challenge, choosing instead to focus on attacking his rival. "You're going to look at his record and say he is not so conservative, as reliable a conservative leader as people might have imagined," Romney said on Fox News Sunday.
But Romney's biggest problem extends much beyond the conservative voters who dominate the South Carolina electorate. A new Gallup poll shows Gingrich is gaining momentum nationally, as well. The former governor leads by only 8%. Romney can no longer boast a sizeable advantage over Gingrich when pitted against Barack Obama in a general election match-up, with both the former governor and speaker polling at 48% compared with the 50% support for the president - a statistical dead heat.
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