Newt Gingrich has accomplished what no Republican has managed to do in the post-Reagan era: beat an establishment GOP candidate in the South Carolina primary by running as a conservative insurgent, even making effective use of populist themes -- e.g., Bain-bashing -- most conservative commentators prefer their candidates to eschew. Gingrich won 40 percent to 28 percent, a convincing showing.
Gingrich's victory speech was atypically gracious and characteristically unfocused, raising questions about whether he can maintain the discipline necessary to capitalize on his South Carolina showing. But make no mistake: a Southern candidate with high name recognition and some capacity for fundraising is dangerous to the erstwhile frontrunner, who now finds himself in uncharted territory. Gingrich led in Florida not that long ago.
Mitt Romney still has a lot of advantages. It isn't clear that Gingrich, who has had ballot access and other problems, can walk and chew gum in multiple primary states at the same time. But the dynamic of the race has been completely changed, and not in a way that is favorable to Romney. He has gone from the inevitable nominee who was going to run the table in the early states to a candidate who has now lost two out of three contests. While Romney can benefit from a competitive nomination process, too protracted a fight will run up his negatives and remind Southern Republican primary voters they don't particularly like him.
Romney's concession speech suggests he plans to hit back at Gingrich on ideological grounds, arguing that the former speaker's Bain rhetoric is anti-free enterprise. It's not too different from the strategy employed against Pat Buchanan in 1996 or Mike Huckabee in 2008. But Romney isn't ideally suited to making ideological attacks, to put it mildly. Florida, Nevada, Arizona, and Michigan loom large as staging grounds for any Romney comeback.
Rick Santorum had a solid third place finish, especially considering Gingrich's double-digit margin of victory. He won 53 percent of those cared most about abortion and 43 percent of voters who wanted a candidate with strong moral character. Yet now that Gingrich has beaten Romney -- and by more than 34 votes with eight precincts missing -- there will be pressure on Santorum to get out of the race. How long will he ignore such calls? Remember that Jon Huntsman also won 17 percent of the vote in a third place finish somewhere, insisting that he had a "ticket to ride" to the next primary.
Ron Paul more than tripled his share of the South Carolina vote from 2008 and nearly quintupled his number of raw votes. But with endorsements from such prominent local legislators as state Sen. Tom Davis, it is still a disappointment for Paul to have two firsts in this race: underperforming his poll numbers and finishing last among the active candidates.
Paul didn't work South Carolina as hard as Iowa or New Hampshire, and plans to do even less in Florida while focusing on the caucuses. The logic of using resources where they can do the most good makes sense, but this is still a gamble. Finishing third in South Carolina would have been good for sustaining momentum and keeping a disproportionately young base's eyes on the prize. So would a double-digit showing in Florida. How much Gingrich remaining competitive will impact Paul's overall delegate-gathering strategy depends on what effect it has on Romney: does it force Mitt to engage the caucuses more to win delegates himself or does it pull him out of those states to focus on competing with Gingrich in primaries?