Mitt Romney, who was the favorite to win in South Carolina, even being endorsed by governor Nickie Haley, was defeated by a strange last minute rally in support of Gingrich. Gingrich had been sending volley after volley of negative ads aimed at Romney’s experience with private equity firm Bain Capital, and his perceived membership with the super wealthy. Ironically, these attack ads may have paid off in South Carolina despite the fact the Gingrich himself is very wealthy, owing a quarter million to Tiffany Co. and having almost beached his campaign in June by taking a Mediterranean cruise. Still, by characterizing Romney as out-of-touch and as a corporate looter, he was able to resonate with the large tea Party element in South Carolina and galvanize that electorate.
Since the Iowa Caucus on January 3rd, Romney has been trying to assert his place as the inevitable nominee by staying above the fray of the “lesser candidates”. However, Gingrich’s constant attack ads, and his recent primary win, have forced Romney to acknowledge and respond. The media, likewise, has been reporting the race now as a two-man face-off of sorts, with Rick Santorum staying conspicuously quiet. Santorum, who seems to have won Iowa after a recount of the closely contested caucus, has been largely ignored since an underwhelming performance in New Hampshire, and appears to be a kind of “Iowa fluke”.
The story of Gingrich’s win is the story of the Republican Party right now; the disconnect between the radicalized conservative popular vote, and the Republican establishment that prefers a plausible candidate for the general election. It comes down to the fact that Gingrich is not an electable nominee. His comments are too controversial, his platform too radical, and his politics too unpredictable to rally the independent votes that are essential to winning a national election. On the other hand, Romney has never been able to galvanize much more than 25% of the Republican electorate nationally, which will prove a tough sell in a general election. On the other hand, his moderate-right politics may be able to move the independents.
It remains to be seen whether the Republican Party will be able to sew up this divide before the nomination, or if Florida and the rest of the primary race will play out like a teeter-totter, pitting safe establishment politics against radical conservative ideology.