Gingrich surges in South Carolina

By Brian Canova

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The story of the 2012 Republican primary season became a much different one than many expected Saturday night, as Newt Gingrich scored a decisive, and unpredicted, victory in the South Carolina primary.

On the heels of two strong showings in South Carolina debates, the former House Speaker notched his first win this primary season with 40 percent of the conservative southern state’s vote.

“The biggest thing I take from South Carolina is that it is very humbling and very sobering to have so many people who so deeply want their country to get back on the right track,” Gingrich said in his post-victory speech.

“So many people are so concerned with jobs, about medical costs, about everyday parts of life and feel that the elites in Washington and New York have no understanding, no care, no concern, no reliability and in fact do not represent them at all,” the former Georgia congressman said in the televised victory speech.

As he had during South Carolina’s second debate, Gingrich called on the “mainstream media” to recognize the influence it has on the American people.

“In the two debates that we had here in Myrtle Beach and then in Charleston, where people reacted so strongly to the news media, I think it was something very fundamental that I wish the powers that be in the news media would take seriously,” Gingrich said.

In the Thursday night debate, Gingrich lashed out at the “elite media,” which he claimed is sympathetic to President Barack Obama and which he said unfairly attacks the Republican candidates.

The win in South Carolina came despite headlines about his personal life in the days leading up to the vote, as Gingrich’s second ex-wife, Marianne Gingrich, spoke in an ABC News interview Thursday, assailing Gingrich’s moral character and claiming he asked her for an open marriage following a six-year affair with his now current wife.

Gingrich in turn made headlines of his own when, asked about the issue to lead off Thursday night’s CNN debate, he blasted moderator John King and what Gingrich called the “elite media,” winning thunderous applause and a standing ovation from the audience.

UMass sophomore Yogini Patel, a political science student, said she was excited to see Gingrich win in South Carolina.

“I think out of all Republicans running he’s one of the better fit to run this country,” said Patel, who added that she wasn’t deterred by questions of Gingrich’s moral character.

“I don’t think there’s any morality in politics, it’s all just show. Ideally it should be, but realistically morality doesn’t exist in politics,” said Patel. “That’s his own personal business.”

UMass freshman Matt Tiller, of Waltham, said he feels Gingrich is hypocritical.

“Gingrich has supported traditional marriage for so long, yet he doesn’t have a traditional marriage and can’t keep one for very long,” Tiller said.

Gingrich’s victory in South Carolina puts the new tally among Republican candidates at one apiece.

In the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum edged former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney out by 34 votes, following an official Iowa GOP announcement last Friday that reversed the results from Romney’s favor.

Before Friday, Romney was thought to have squeaked out a victory in Iowa over Santorum by an eight-vote margin.

The new results followed the discovery of inaccuracies in 133 precincts, which ranged from improperly completed paperwork to identical signatures across multiple precincts despite their independent operation. The results from eight precincts are still missing, but will not be counted, according reports in The Des Moines Register, marring the results in a race closer than any initially expected in Iowa.

In New Hampshire, where he owns a vacation home, Romney won the Jan. 10 primary 16 percentage points ahead of his nearest competitor, Texas Rep. Ron Paul.

As opposed to Gingrich’s success in the two South Carolina debates, Romney’s performance lacked similar surety, and when asked if he planned to release his tax records, an increasing trouble for the former governor, Romney stumbled once more.

Late in New Hampshire and through South Carolina, Romney’s tenure as CEO of the Boston-based private equity firm Bain Capital became the focus of Gingrich and some of the other candidates’ attacks.

In Iowa, Gingrich saw his numbers plummet after a barrage of unexpected attack ads from Romney’s campaign and a pro-Romney super Political Action Committee, “Restore Our Future” that aired across the state, warning voters of Gingrich’s history of ethical violations.

With a 10-point lead over Gingrich in opinion polling heading into South Carolina Romney at the time appeared poised to win what would have been his third straight contest and possibly secure the GOP nomination.

Romney held that lead through Thursday, before the needle began to tip toward Gingrich following the two debates.

In exit polling Saturday, voters who said they decided on a candidate late overwhelmingly favored Gingrich, while Romney received the nod from early deciders. Of voters who felt the most important quality in a Republican presidential candidate was the ability to defeat President Obama, 51 percent of voters supported Gingrich, as opposed to 37 percent who supported Romney.

Romney’s has campaigned on a platform of electability, calling himself the only candidate capable of defeating Obama in a general election.

Rachel Hayes, a 19-year-old UMass political science undergraduate agrees.

“I think if Newt Gingrich got the Republican nomination he wouldn’t be able to beat Obama. But I think if Romney got the nomination he would be able to beat Obama because he would get some of the moderate votes,” said Hayes.

Hayes said she likes Romney but doubts his mass appeal.

“He is extremely wealthy and not very relatable to the middle class,” said Hayes. “I like that he’s a moderate, which I don’t think really appeals to a lot of Republicans.”

Romney’s mass appeal is lost on Lee Burgess, an 18-year-old UMass history student from Chelmsford.

“I like that his primary concern is the economy, but I don’t like how he claims he’s common man,” Burgess said.

Burgess said he expects Romney to win the Republican nomination but thinks Obama will win reelection.

With the count now split after South Carolina, the GOP base once again finds itself divided, mimicking the flavor-of-the-week pattern seen in 2011 polling, where four separate frontrunners emerged from the field of Republican candidates.

Past frontrunners Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann have each dropped out.

In South Carolina, two more candidates exited the trail, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman and Texas Governor Rick Perry. Huntsman, who skipped Iowa to stake his campaign in New Hampshire, where he earned a third-place finish, endorsed Romney, and Perry, hurt by debate missteps early in the race, withdrew and endorsed Gingrich.

In his final appearance in the Myrtle Beach debate, Perry criticized Romney.’s refusal to publicize his tax records.

“We’ve got records, my record is one of those that’s been open to the public for quite a few years. As a matter of fact my income taxes have been out every year. Mitt, we need for you to release your income taxes so the people of this country can see how you made your money,” Perry said during the debate.

Asked to respond in 30 seconds, Romney spoke with the moderator that the allotted time wouldn’t be enough, and then moved to speaking about steel mills.

Gingrich recalled the pivotal debates in Saturday night’s victory speech.

“It’s not that I am a good debater, it’s that I articulate the deepest felt values of the American people,” he said.

Looking forward to Florida, the test for Gingrich will be his ability to use the momentum from South Carolina to win the Jan. 31 primary in a state where Romney’s deep pockets have allowed him ample time to build a deep campaign across the Sunshine State.

Brian Canova can be reached [email protected] and followed on Twitter @BrianCanova.