Newt Gingrich's come-from-behind victory in Saturday's South Carolina primary was perhaps as surprising as it was overwhelming -- and it makes it far more difficult to predict just which of the Republican hopefuls will ultimately win the nomination and face President Barack Obama in November.
The candidacy of the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives was written off last year, before some strong early debate performances pushed him to the top of the polls. But Gingrich fell back under withering criticism from his opponents, and some thought his chances were dashed by relatively poor showings in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum narrowly won in Iowa, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won in New Hampshire.
But once again, on the strength of his ability to articulate in debates a number of positions that resonate with many Americans, Gingrich stormed back. Days before the South Carolina primary, he was far behind Romney in polls in the state, but he wound up defeating Romney by nearly 13 percentage points! Santorum and Texas Congressman Ron Paul finished a good bit further back.
Exit polls indicate that Gingrich fared particularly well among voters who labeled themselves conservatives and among evangelicals. He also won among independents, who will be important no matter which Republican faces Obama. And he got more than half the votes of those who considered the ability to beat Obama the most important attribute in a candidate. Voters who deemed the economy the most crucial issue also were more likely to vote for Gingrich than for Romney.
Romney appeared to suffer in part from a lack of clarity on whether he would release his tax returns. He now plans to release them today. Though Obama surely would use the returns to engage in class warfare against the successful Romney in a general election campaign, it is probably wise that Romney is releasing the returns now and partially inoculating himself against the attacks.
And Romney may be glad that up next is the primary in the big state of Florida. While the debates there will be important, it is a large state with several major media markets. That presumably gives Romney, who has more money to spend on his campaign, an edge in being able to blanket the state with advertising.
And it is still thought that Gingrich and Santorum are battling for the more conservative voters, while Romney is drawing more moderates. It is hard to gauge which of the leading two candidates -- Gingrich or Romney -- could be losing votes to Paul, who has an unusual mix of isolationism and libertarianism. Neither Paul nor Santorum seems likely to win the nomination -- though we wouldn't necessarily count either one out -- but either could be a spoiler to one of the front-runners.
Meanwhile, waiting in the wings and quietly collecting large sums of money for his campaign is Obama. The GOP candidates need not think that the weak economy and Obama's failed policies guarantee his defeat. Whatever his faults -- and they are many -- he is a strong campaigner and has no intention of relinquishing the White House without a no-holds-barred fight. The Republican hopefuls underestimate his political abilities at their peril.