COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Mitt Romney started the week expecting to rack up his third consecutive Republican primary win in this state. Instead he belatedly lost Iowa and suffered a stinging setback here at the hands of Newt Gingrich. He heads to Florida a far from inevitable presidential nominee.
Judging from his concession speech, Romney also is now a feistier candidate resolved to fight fire with fire when it comes to Gingrich. President Obama attacks free enterprise and has never run a business or a state, Romney said, then turned that into a sharp thrust at Gingrich.
“Our party can’t be led to victory by someone who also has never run a business and never run a state," he said. "We cannot defeat that president with a candidate who has joined in that very assault on free enterprise.” Romney then gave the knife one more twist: “Those that pick up the weapons of the left today will find them turned against us tomorrow.”
The decisive rebuke from South Carolina voters wasn’t for lack of effort on Romney's part. He had the support of Gov. Nikki Haley and a raft of prominent elected officials, and his campaign and his allies combined outspent Gingrich and his allies nearly 2-to-1. The scope of Romney's loss was also stinging: He was on track to lose every congressional district in the state – including the seat encompassing the city of Charleston, more moderate territory – and it didn't look like he would accrue any delegates in the state.
Romney remains the favorite for the nomination, given his financial and organizational advantages nationally. But he faces fresh obstacles. The race is now a one-on-one showdown between Romney and Gingrich, with Rep. Ron Paul of Texas having the potential to peel some support away from Gingrich and perform well in smaller caucuses. If Gingrich can continue to consolidate support from conservative voters as he did here, Romney will be in for a long, drawn-out battle for delegates.
One senior Romney strategist said that Gingrich’s performance in the Monday debate was a “rocket booster” for his poll numbers. Gingrich also benefited from his outburst against the media in Thursday's CNN debate. There are another two debates scheduled before Florida’s primary on Jan. 31, including a National Journal/NBC debate on Monday, which could give Gingrich continued momentum in Florida.
The results here in South Carolina – and this entire primary cycle -- have proven that organization, while still important, can be overcome with strong performances in nationally-televised debates. Indeed, Gingrich overwhelmed Romney among the voters who decided within the last several days, 43 percent to 23 percent, according to exit polling.
Still, Romney’s campaign has argued that Florida, with its size and cost to compete, is very favorable turf for Romney. He holds an unmistakable organizational advantage over Gingrich there. Since September, five full-time staffers have been on the ground in Florida, spread out in five different regions of the state. The campaign has already aggressively reached out to voters who elect to cast absentee ballots – some 407,000 of them in the state.
The Romney team has already aired three English-language ads, starting on Jan. 3, and one in Spanish. Restore Our Future, the pro-Romney super PAC, spent about $300,000 on mailings and $1.5 million on television in Florida this week alone, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Most of the ads, according to campaign sources, are negative hits against Gingrich.
The stakes are high: The winner of the primary takes all of the state’s 50 delegates, and that will put the victor in the delegate lead by default.
Romney acknowledged Saturday night that the nomination fight could go on for quite a while longer. “This race is getting more interesting,” he said as he arrived on stage. “These are three contests into a long primary season.” One of his supporters, former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, predicted on Friday that "you're going to see the same kind of long slog that you saw in 1976, with Ford and Reagan, that it took the whole thing to win.”
At least in the short term, Romney could get a boost by winning the endorsements from two of the conservative movement's biggest brands, who happen to hail from Florida – Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush. Romney endorsed Rubio in his Republican primary battle before Gingrich did, but so far there's no sign either planned to try to influence the presidential primary process in Florida.