There can be little doubt that South Carolina represents a big win for Newt Gingrich, and a setback of noticeable proportions for Mitt Romney (how noticeable remains to be seen). Gingrich won because of the questions raised about Romney’s Bain Capital past (never mind that most of those questions were illegitimate ones, oftentimes featuring Republicans doing their best impressions of Michael Moore), and because of questions raised about Romney’s tax status (also overblown). Gingrich also won because he was able to turn the attacks on him–launched by his ex-wife–into attacks on the media. The question remains whether Gingrich is going to be able to make something of his South Carolina win. I doubt it, but given the many twists and turns that this race has taken, I wouldn’t be surprised if Team Romney stayed on the defensive for a while before finally getting their bearings, and winning the nomination–assuming, of course, that Romney will eventually be the nominee. (As of this writing, Intrade continues to heavily bet on a Romney win for the nomination contest.)
Another reason why Gingrich won is that Romney has been playing it safe, believing that the nomination will be his, and that he can train his fire on President Obama. That thought should be banished from Romney’s head; he has to use the upcoming contests to decisively put away his competition. He can do so by going on the offensive against Gingrich, who actually represents a target-rich environment for Romney. Romney has to campaign as though he is a million votes behind, so that commentators will stop talking about how Romney might feel that he is entitled to the nomination, and so that they will start talking instead about the grit and fire which Romney needs to display from here on out. In the event that the nomination contest turns out to be a tough one, at the end of it–assuming that Romney wins the nomination–he needs to be viewed as a dragon slayer; defeating a formidable array of opponents, and looking tougher for it. It’s either that, or win the nomination looking battered and bloodied, and vulnerable to the assaults of Team Obama once the general election contest is set.
Of course, the other two candidates deserve mention. Rick Santorum has won as many contests as Romney and Gingrich individually have, so perhaps there is little justification in demanding that he leave the race. But the fact remains that Santorum is low on funds, and entering contests where he generally doesn’t have a prayer of winning. As for Ron Paul, he hasn’t won a single contest, and came in 4th–almost 25,000 votes behind Santorum. It is long past time for Paul to leave, and the Republican party will be better off when he does.