CHARLESTON, S.C. — Just after the polls closed Saturday in South Carolina, Hogan Gidley was talking to reporters inside Mark Clark Hall at the Citadel, where Rick Santorum was holding his campaign’s Primary Night celebration. Mitt Romney “was going to be 3 and 0 until three days ago,” said Gidley, communications director for Santorum’s campaign, adding that the results of the past two days — including the belated news that Santorum, not Romney, was the winner of the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses — had “blown a hole in [Romney’s] inevitability.”
Newt Gingrich’s victory Saturday took away what was always Romney’s strongest argument: That the former Massachusetts governor’s well-funded campaign machinery made him the odds-on favorite in the Republican field, capable of clinching the nomination early in the primary process, thus uniting the party for the battle to defeat President Obama. The perception of Romney’s inevitability — as the “It’s His Turn” candidate whom GOP voters have so often chosen as their presidential nominee — helped him pile up a huge fundraising advantage over his rivals. Inevitability also helped Romney garner endorsements from eminent pundits like Ann Coulter and popular politicians like South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Despite his relatively moderate record, Romney was endorsed by the conservative editors of National Review, who last month mocked Gingrich with a cover story illustrated by a cartoon depicting the former Georgia congressman as a ludicrous space alien.
All of Romney’s advantages evidently counted for naught when Palmetto State voters went to the polls Saturday, where they delivered a shattering blow to any thought that the “inevitable” Romney might lock up the nomination early. The prospect of a long fight for the nomination now looms, and some have even speculated about a “brokered convention” when Republican delegates gather in Tampa in August. That’s a far-fetched scenario. The last time the GOP had a brokered convention was when Thomas Dewey won the 1948 nomination on the third ballot. But the mere fact that it has been suggested indicates how Romney’s defeat in South Carolina has revived the possibility that the 2012 Republican campaign might be something other than the predictable coronation of the party establishment’s choice. And the end of Romney’s aura of inevitability came with astonishing swiftness.
After Romney won the New Hampshire primary Jan. 10, he appeared to have overwhelming momentum. A Rasmussen poll taken Jan. 16 — the Monday when former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman quit the race and endorsed Romney — showed Romney leading Gingrich in South Carolina by 14 points. When the votes were counted Saturday night, however, Gingrich won by more than 12 points. This apparent 26-point swing from Romney to Gingrich was driven by late-deciding voters who, according to exit polls, broke decisively toward Gingrich, and was almost entirely attributable to his strong showing in the televised debates last week. But in his victory speech Saturday, the former college professor put his own interpretation on that obvious factor. “It’s not that I’m a good debater,” Gingrich told his cheering supporters. “It is that I articulate the deepest-held values of the American people.”
Such are the “grandiose thoughts” of the man who, as the Romney campaign pointed out in a press release last week, has compared himself to famed leaders like Moses, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Charles de Gaulle, and even the 13th-city Scottish warrior William Wallace, who inspired the movie Braveheart. Gingrich’s tendency to envision himself as a towering colossus of world-historic significance, a man so transcendently important to the fate of humankind that he cannot be judged by the standards that apply to mere mortals, is one reason why some conservatives are uncomfortable with the idea of Gingrich as the GOP nominee. Santorum expressed the nub of that discomfort in Thursday’s debate: “I served with him. I was there. I knew what the problems were going on in the House of Representatives when Newt Gingrich was leading there. It was an idea a minute, no discipline, no ability to be able to pull things together.” Referring to his own work to expose the House banking scandal, Santorum said Gingrich knew about the abuses but “did nothing, because you didn’t have the courage to stand up to your own leadership.”
These were strong words coming from a fellow Republican, but evidently did not persuade South Carolinians against voting for Gingrich. And when the victor emerged triumphant Saturday night, he was magnanimous toward Santorum, specifically praising the third-place finisher for the quality that the former Pennsylvania senator had accused Gingrich of lacking. “Rick Santorum showed enormous courage in Iowa when he had no money, nobody covered him, and he just kept campaigning,” Gingrich said, inspiring someone in the audience to shout “V.P.” But Santorum seemed indifferent to the intended compliment, and uninterested in being the running mate on a Gingrich-led ticket. In a Sunday morning interview on ABC’s This Week, Santorum called Gingrich ideologically “erratic” and “a high-risk candidate” for Republicans, and dismissed the argument made by some conservatives that they must unite behind Gingrich in order to prevent Romney from winning the nomination. “I’ve beaten Mitt Romney,” Santorum told George Stephanopoulos, referring to his win in the Iowa caucuses, which wasn’t officially confirmed until 17 days after he edged Romney there. “Newt Gingrich has beaten Mitt Romney. The idea that conservatives have to coalesce in order to beat Mitt Romney, well, that’s just not true anymore. Conservatives actually can have a choice.”
Santorum’s vow to continue campaigning, with the expectation that Republican voters will eventually rally to him as the “consistent conservative,” provoked mockery from Democrat strategist James Carville. Appearing on CNN Saturday night, Carville called Santorum a “headless chicken” who had been decapitated by finishing third in South Carolina: “Everyone knows that a headless chicken is dead except the chicken.” Carville has an especially personal hatred for Santorum, who in 1994 won his Senate seat with an upset defeat of Democrat Sen. Harris Wofford, whose campaign was directed by Carville and Paul Begala, who had been previously credited with masterminding Bill Clinton’s 1992 election. And even as Carville was evoking laughter on the CNN set with his barnyard humor, Santorum’s campaign was releasing the allegedly dead candidate’s schedule for the next two days. By 2 p.m. Sunday, Santorum was holding a town-hall meeting in Coral Spring, Florida.
Many candidates have risen and fallen in this long struggle for the Republican nomination. Gingrich’s campaign was twice written off as doomed, first when his staff exited en masse in June, and again after he finished fourth in Iowa, where he was buried under an avalanche of attack ads. Gingrich placed fifth in New Hampshire, but it was Huntsman, the third-place finisher in the Granite State, who quit the race six days later. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who had refused to drop out after placing fifth in Iowa, waited until two days before the South Carolina primary to quit and endorse Gingrich — the same day it was learned that Santorum and not Romney had won Iowa. Meanwhile the libertarian-themed campaign of Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who placed second in New Hampshire, still has a strong base of donors and activists that cannot be neglected as a force to influence the 2012 race. Paul’s campaign indirectly helped Romney by piling onto Gingrich with attack ads in Iowa, then gave the same sort of indirect boost to Gingrich by slamming Santorum with attacks in South Carolina. And one member of Romney’s campaign staff told me Friday that they expect Paul to be a formidable contender in caucus states like Nevada, which votes Feb. 4.
In less than three weeks, the GOP field has been winnowed from seven candidates to four, and each remaining campaign argues that it can keep going for many more weeks. (Santorum, whom many critics dismiss as lacking the financial resources for a long campaign, raised more than $1 million in a 72-hour online “money bomb” last week.) No one can doubt the possibility for further sudden changes in this campaign year of unprecedented turbulence.
It was raining in South Carolina when Gingrich claimed his victory Saturday night in Columbia, and the sky in Charleston was still overcast with heavy clouds early Sunday. But by then the Republican candidates had already flown to Florida and, whatever the weather there might be, the campaign in the Sunshine State will be free from the previously gloomy shadow of “inevitability.”
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