No doubt there were champagne corks popping at the White House when Newt Gingrich was declared the winner of the South Carolina primary on Saturday night. But the state's Republicans also have a sobering message for President Obama: It's not just the economy, stupid. By November, it might be only the economy.
In spite of more personal baggage than a jumbo jet, Gingrich beat endangered front-runner Mitt Romney because most Republicans in South Carolina think he can beat Obama and because the economy outweighed, by far, any other issue on the table, according to exit polls.
Six in 10 primary voters identified the economy as the most important issue to them, and of those, 40 percent voted for Gingrich, more than any other candidate in the four-man contest. Romney got 32 percent of the votes from Republicans who think the economy is the No. 1 issue. Nearly a third of South Carolina's GOP voters said someone in their household has been laid off in the last three years.
Another telling statistic from the exit polls: Voters were asked to name the most important "candidate quality" to them, and 45 percent said someone who can defeat Obama. Of those who thought beating Obama was the top quality, 51 percent voted for Gingrich, 37 percent for Romney.
Only 18 percent of primary voters named "strong moral character" as the most important trait in a presidential candidate. And it's a good thing for Gingrich that so few of them found it decisive. He got only 6 percent of people voting on moral character, whereas Romney got 19 percent. The winner in that category hands down was Rick Santorum, the married-just-once father of seven, who got 43 percent.
It is almost unthinkable for a serious presidential contender to have Gingrich's personal profile: married three times, accused by one ex of seeking an "open marriage" so he could keep his mistress, reprimanded by his House peers for ethics violations and made a multi-millionaire by peddling his influence after leaving Congress. Unthinkable only in a good, moderately good or even sort of good economy.
In an economy as bad as the one Obama is presiding over, a candidate with that profile can win the support of 38 percent support of Republican women (Romney 29 percent), 41 percent of married people (Romney 28 percent), and 44 percent of evangelical Christians (Romney 21 percent) in a major primary.
It's enough to take the fizz out of your bubbly.