The most immediate effect of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's victory in Saturday's South Carolina Republican presidential primary is that the GOP nominating race will go to Florida at the end of this month, and to other states beyond.
For the time being, all four competitors will remain in the field. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum will be hard pressed to raise enough money to run a competitive Florida campaign and could be eliminated if he does poorly there. Texas Rep. Ron Paul has a core support group that will carry him all the way to the GOP summer convention, although not in contention for the nomination itself. Despite finishing No. 2 to Gingrich in South Carolina, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney remains the favorite.
Gingrich's upset victory can be laid to his shrewd attacks, in GOP debates this past week, against Fox News correspondent Juan Williams and CNN moderator John King, exploiting conservative-voter hostility toward the media in general. Romney did all right in the debates but hesitated and seemed unsure of himself in questioning regarding release of his tax returns.
Longer term, the tax-return issue is not likely to hurt Romney. Everyone knows he is rich. Former candidates — including Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, New York Govs. Nelson Rockefeller and Averell Harriman, and Sen. John Kerry also were rich — either by marriage or inheritance. President Ronald Reagan, as Romney, was self-made rich. Once he gets over his guilt about gilt, Romney is likely to get past the issue.
Gingrich, by contrast, made short-term hay from his media-baiting. But the questions posed by Williams and King are likely to plague him in later contests. Williams asked about racist overtones in Gingrich's references to Obama as "the food stamp president." King asked him to respond to his second wife's characterization of their marriage, in a network TV interview, and her assertion that Gingrich had asked for an "open marriage," in which he would be free to pursue an affair with the woman who is his present, third wife. You can be sure that media, and his opponents, will continue to pursue these and other subjects where a blame-it-on-the-media posture will not suffice.
Each of the four remaining Republicans fills a niche.
Romney is, as Gingrich says, "a Massachusetts moderate," who governed successfully in a heavily Democratic state. He is the most recent in a line of Republican national politicians, including New York Govs. Tom Dewey and Nelson Rockefeller, President Gerald Ford, Sen. Bob Dole, the Bushes Elder and Younger, and Sen. John McCain, who occupied that middle ground.
Though all the Republican aspirants claim lineage to former President Ronald Reagan, Romney can do so on the basis that he was elected and governed in a Democratic-majority state, is primarily concerned with economic growth, and has, of all the GOP candidates, been most reluctant to go on the attack against his competitors. Polling data continue to show him the most electable GOP candidate in a race against President Barack Obama.
Santorum is the standardbearer and favorite of Christian conservatives who place highest priority on issues such as abortion, school prayer, gay marriage, and "family values." (He also is benefiting from that group's antipathy toward Mormons, including Romney, whom they consider members of a non-Christian sect). Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was this group's champion four years ago. Fully two-thirds of South Carolina Republicans characterize themselves as "born again" or "evangelicals."
Paul has a steadfast base among libertarians, isolationists, and those who see the Federal Reserve as the principal source of our recent economic distress. He cannot be nominated but, at the GOP national convention, will be able to leverage perhaps 10-15 percent of the delegates toward platform positions including some of his views. He is most similar to 1992 third-party candidate Ross Perot, who got 19 percent of total votes in the general election (after leading the major candidates, President George H.W. Bush and then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, in three-way polling matchups prior to his own candidacy's implosion several weeks before election day).
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