On Saturday, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich capped off a tumultuous week of campaigning in South Carolina by pulling off a comeback for the ages. In the course of a week, Gingrich overcame double-digit deficits in polls at the beginning of the week to post a 12-point win in the South Carolina primary.
Gingrich’s win blows the race wide open and puts former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney scrambling. With the Florida GOP primary just eight days away, what do the remaining Republican candidates need to do to boost their chances of gaining the party’s nomination?
Keep up the momentum. Gingrich benefited from excellent debate performances in South Carolina, and shrewdly played his hand with regards to the tax return controversy that engulfed Romney. Tonight’s debate in Florida could not come at a better time for Gingrich, who undoubtedly will use the forum to showcase his conservative credentials, prove that he is electable, and assail Romney as the candidate of moderates and the very wealthy.
Romney already has admitted his delay on releasing his tax returns was a mistake, and has plans to do so Tuesday. The biggest thing Romney needs to do in Florida is take advantage of his fundraising advantage, which will become more pronounced in Florida than in South Carolina.
This is because Florida’s population, and its media markets, are bigger than South Carolina’s. Florida has the 14th, 16th and 19th largest television markets in the United States (Tampa Bay-St. Petersburg, Miami and Orlando, respectively). The largest primarily South Carolina-based television market is Greenville/Spartanburg/Anderson/Asheville, North Carolina market, at 37th. The difference? The largest South Carolina market reaches just more than 860,000 homes. The Florida markets mentioned all reach well over 1 million homes each. Romney still has a money advantage, and he will have less of a problem saturating the air waves with his message than his more cash-strapped competition.
After being declared the winner of the Iowa caucus, Santorum finished third in South Carolina with 17% of the vote. Much of the boost he got from his virtual tie with Romney has dissipated after a fifth-place showing in New Hampshire and his more recent South Carolina performance. Santorum needs to do well in the debates and hope Gingrich slips up, since the former House Speaker has seemingly taken up the mantle of champion of the conservatives. Considering the minimal impact that Marianne Gingrich’s “open marriage” allegation had on Newt’s South Carolina performance, Santorum has a hard road ahead to win back the conservative base.
Ron Paul’s stock seems to be going down after a solid third-place in Iowa and second-place finish in New Hampshire gave way to a distance fourth-place in South Carolina. In fact, Paul likely will spend little time in Florida, since there is a good chance they will be stripped of nominating delegates at the Republican convention for moving up their primary to Jan. 31.
Paul likely will remain in the nominating race regardless of results, so his biggest priority is maintaining the enthusiasm of his libertarian-leaning voter base while somehow convincing the rest of the Republican Party at large that his policies don’t threaten them. This has led some to suggest that Paul might run as an independent or third-party candidate, which he has refused to absolutely rule out. Few people seem to support this approach, with even Ron Paul’s son Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., saying he didn’t think it was a good idea.
In short, while it’s looking like the primary season will last much longer than Romney might have hoped it would, it is increasingly likely that Santorum and Paul will either drop out or be marginalized in the process, making this a Romney/Gingrich run. Whether this run will end like the prolonged campaign between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama remains to be seen.
– Benjamin Nanamaker, InvestorPlace Money & Politics Editor
The opinions contained in this column are solely those of the writer.
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