Just when you thought Mitt Romney had the nomination in the bag, Newt Gingrich’s surprising win in Saturday’s South Carolina primary showed a nice change of pace. The former Speaker took the state with 41 percent of the vote, while Romney claimed second with 27 percent. It was a shocking turnaround that showed Romney to not be the unbeatable favorite.
Gingrich was, inarguably, the candidate of the week. On Monday, ahead of the week’s debates, he polled behind Romney at 21 percent. Additionally, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Tea Party favorite, had been campaigning for Romney.
But Monday’s Fox News/Wall Street Journal and Thursday’s CNN debates had Gingrich at his best I’ve seen since the start of the election cycle. Gingrich is known for his candid statements, despite the notion that they may sometimes be controversial. The debates were no different.
In past debates, Romney had successfully countered attacks from the other candidates on virtually every issue. That trend ended on Monday when he dodged Rick Perry’s, and on Thursday, Gingrich’s, urging him to release his tax returns. Perry had already released his returns and Gingrich had on Thursday. Romney stated that he would release his returns when he is elected. He relented today, saying that he will release them this week, but the damage was done. Romney raised suspicion in voters’ eyes.
America’s high unemployment, which has skyrocketed under Barack Obama, has fueled fury at the problem of economic inequality, especially in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Anyone focusing on this group could have predicted that they would be a major factor in 2012. While not explicitly reaching out to them, Gingrich may find their favor by his positions on issues. For the last few weeks, all of the candidates, especially Gingrich, have attacked Romney for his job-slashing record at Bain Capital, and for saying he likes to fire people. The rhetoric against Romney has angered some on the Right, but a big-business candidate, such as Romney, personifies the 1 percent that the OWS movement despises.
Gingrich has capitalized well on the unemployment issue. Some time ago, Gingrich experienced much criticism for his remarks that black Americans should demand jobs instead of food stamps, and that poor children should acquire strong work ethics by working as janitors in their schools. He also referred to Obama as the “food-stamp president.” Monday’s debate moderator Juan Williams pressed Gingrich on those comments, asking the Speaker if they were insulting to black Americans. Gingrich simply responded, “No,” explaining his rationale that people like to earn a paycheck and to be in charge of their finances, and if students worked in school, the dropout rate would decrease. Gingrich cited relevant facts, that Obama has put more people on food stamps than any other president in American history, and has done nothing to help the poor.
While not the game-changer that Monday’s debate was, Thursday showed more of Gingrich’s candidness. Moderator John King asked him the first question of the debate about his ex-wife’s revelation that he asked her for an open marriage. Gingrich was obviously ready for it, and spectacularly turned it into an attack on the “elite” media, stating how he was appalled that a debate would start with such an insignificant issue. Both nights drew him many standing ovations, and confirmed that Gingrich is a strong debater, and by extension, a strong candidate.
While most polls still show Romney to be all but the nominee, don’t count on his candidacy being certain. South Carolina has a reputation as a tiebreaker in Republican primaries, and the winner of that race typically becomes the nominee. Additionally, as of last week, Rick Santorum officially won the Iowa caucus, so there have been three different winners in the first three races. However, with Saturday’s victory and the endorsements of recently-dropped-out Rick Perry and de-facto Tea Party leader Sarah Palin, Gingrich will be a bigger hurdle to Romney’s predicted nomination than we thought. Expect an exciting battle to the end.