Newt Gingrich had all the momentum today as South Carolinians were voting in their state’s Republican primary.
A poll released this morning showed the former House speaker’s surge over the last week carrying him past Mitt Romney, who had been the front-runner in the state all month. The American Research Group poll shows Gingrich leading Romney by a 40% to 26% margin. ARG’s last poll, released Thursday, showed a virtual tie with Gingrich at 33% and Romney at 32%.
Two weeks ago, Romney’s campaign was looking at two wins under its belt, a big lead in South Carolina, a bigger lead in Florida and the possibility of a clear path to the Republican presidential nomination.
But a day before the vote, Romney’s camp was downplaying expectations and Gingrich’s predicting victory.
Voters casting ballots in South CarolinaOwner ‘didn’t know’ about Mitt and NewtGingrich hams it up at ham house
“It’s tight, it’s real tight,” said one Romney adviser who did not want to be quoted discussing internal poll numbers.
A top Gingrich strategist in South Carolina was predicting victory.
Richard Quinn, a longtime South Carolina GOP strategist who worked for Jon Huntsman but signed on to advise Gingrich this week, told CNN Friday that the former House speaker will walk away with “between a 4- and 6-point plurality win” in the contest.
South Carolina is the third contest on the primary calendar and the first in the South. The winner of the primary has gone on to win the Republican nomination in every election since 1980.
Gingrich and Romney were both campaigning in the conservative Upstate on Saturday with Gingrich presenting himself as the conservative alternative to the “Massachusetts moderate” Romney while Romney continued to attack Gingrich as he has over the past week as polls tightened.
At his Greenville campaign headquarters, Romney launched a new line of attack, calling for Gingrich to release details on his work for government-backed mortgage giant Freddie Mac, an institution that is unpopular with conservatives.
“Didn’t he say he was going to release information about his relationship there?” Romney asked. “Let’s see what report he wrote for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, what his conclusions were and what the contract looked like. I thought he said he was going to do that.”
Later making calls at a phone bank inside the headquarters, Romney gave an idea of how he sees the race on one of the five calls he made: “This could be real close,” he said.
An anticipated run-in between the two front-runners didn’t materialize at a Greenville restaurant where both had booked events at the same time. Romney showed up about 45 minutes early and had left before Gingrich arrived.
Upon arriving, Gingrich asked, “Where’s Mitt? I thought he was going to stay and maybe we’d have a little debate this morning.”
Santorum will move on to FloridaSantorum will move on to FloridaShowdown for S.C. primary
Strong thunderstorms were rolling through the state on Saturday and the state election commission said turnout across the state ranged from very light in some areas to very heavy in others.
As late as Tuesday, Romney had a double-digit lead in most polls of likely voters in the state’s primary, but Gingrich turned in two strong debate performances in the state this week while Romney was put on his heels by his rivals.
Then what had been declared an eight-vote Romney victory in Iowa’s January 3 caucuses was reversed into a 34-vote win for Rick Santorum when the state party certified its results on Thursday.
Later that day, Texas Gov. Rick Perry suspended his campaign and threw his support to Gingrich.
“It has been a hard week,” state treasurer Curtis Loftis, a leading Romney surrogate, said Friday. “Nobody is going to deny that.”
Santorum trails Romney and Gingrich, and the Iowa reversal and an earlier endorsement by a group of leading conservative Christian leaders hasn’t translated into support in a state where a large part of Republican voters call themselves evangelical or conservative Christians.
But the former Pennsylvania senator said on Friday that he had felt a “palpable change” over the last 48 hours.
Santorum has spent the week trying to bring down Gingrich in what most see as a race between the moderate Romney against conservatives Gingrich or Santorum.
On Friday, he made parallels to Goldilocks and the Three Bears, calling Gingrich’s history too hot, questioning whether he had the “discipline to go out and be steady,” and Romney as “just a little cool, just a little timid.”
Left out of Santorum’s fable is Texas Rep. Ron Paul, although most polls show him running just a few points behind Santorum.
Although most GOP strategists see Paul’s strict interpretation of the Constitution and his views on defense and spending as out of step with the mainstream, he appeals to libertarian-leaning Republicans and has a large following among younger voters.
On Friday, Paul addressed that appeal, saying, “A lot of people do identify me with another generation, the younger generation who’s so enthusiastic about the things that we’ve been talking about in going back to the Constitution,” Paul said. “So this to me is very encouraging because the growth of the freedom movement is getting to be exponential. It was very, very slow for a long time.”
The ARG poll showed Paul running five points ahead of Santorum, 18% to 13%.
The campaign trail leads to Florida next, which votes on January 31. Romney has held a large lead in polls of likely primary voters but recent polls show the race tightening a bit there, too.