BY MICHAEL BOWMAN – A fluid and surprise-laden Republican presidential nominating contest remains wide open after former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich won Saturday’s primary election in South Carolina, dealing a blow to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Both candidates already have their sights set on Florida, which votes at the end of the month.
After finishing fourth in both Iowa and New Hampshire, Newt Gingrich is basking in the afterglow of a resounding victory in South Carolina, where he captured 40-percent of the vote. Appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press television program, Gingrich continued to push populist themes that appear to have resonated with primary voters and contributed to his sudden surge.
“We are going to change things. We are going to make the establishment very uncomfortable. I am happy to be in the tradition of Ronald Reagan as the outsider who scares the Republican establishment,” he said.
The eventual Republican nominee will face President Barack Obama, a Democrat, in November.
Until a few days ago, Mitt Romney topped the polls in South Carolina. With a well-funded campaign, a decisive victory in New Hampshire, and the backing of many establishment Republican figures, Romney was thought to be the clear front-runner in the Republican presidential race. Appearing on Fox News Sunday, he tried to downplay the significance of his second-place finish in South Carolina with 28-percent of the vote.
“I am looking forward to a long campaign. This is a tough process, and that is the way it ought to be. We are selecting the president of the United States, someone who is going to face ups and downs and real challenges. And I hope that through this process I can demonstrate that I can take a setback and come back strong,” he said.
In televised debates before the South Carolina vote, Romney dodged questions about releasing his federal tax returns. A multi-millionaire investor, Romney has the greatest personal wealth of all Republican presidential hopefuls. Now, he is promising to release last year’s tax return as well as an estimate of the return he will file later this year. Romney says he hopes to put the issue behind him.
“So you will have two years [of tax returns]. People can take a good look at it. We will put them on the [campaign] Website. We made a mistake in holding off as long as we did. It was a distraction. We want to get back to the real issues in the campaign: leadership, character, vision for America, how to get jobs again in America,” he said.
Attention now turns to Florida, a state with more voters than Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina combined. Romney is expected to be aided by the state’s somewhat more-moderate Republican voter base, the superiority of his campaign organization in the state, his ability to flood major media markets with advertising, and the fact that Florida allows early mail-in voting, meaning that some Florida ballots were cast before the Gingrich surge.
But the former House speaker says none of that will matter at a time of intense voter anger over America’s economic prospects. “There is something real and deep there that happens all across the country, and certainly in Florida. As they look at the big boys in Wall Street, they look at the guys in Washington, they know none of the help got down to average, everyday Floridians. And I think that gap creates a real anger against the national establishment,” he said.
The other two remaining Republican hopefuls are former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and Texas Congressman Ron Paul. Neither has given any indication of an intent to leave the race.