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After Gingrich 'Slam Dunk,' GOP Battle Intensifies

Newt Gingrich's win in South Carolina was big enough to ensure that the Republican primary season will remain competitive for weeks to come.

But even in the immediate aftermath of the former House speaker's 12 percentage point victory over Mitt Romney, analysts were asking whether Gingrich's newfound momentum would be enough to sustain a serious challenge.

"Gingrich has the euphoria of the slam dunk that he had in South Carolina," says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "But then you come back to the reality that this is a whole different battleground in Florida."

In his victory speech Saturday, Gingrich conceded that he won't enjoy anything like the kind of campaign resources that Romney commands.

But momentum means a lot in politics. Gingrich's success in establishing himself as the most viable conservative alternative to Romney means the race will likely extend well beyond the Florida primary on Jan. 31.

"It's a two-man race and it's going to be very hotly contested," says Curt Kiser, a former GOP state legislator in Florida.

"I was a little surprised that Newt won by the margin he did," Kiser says. "That's a hard thing to stop. Unless a candidate steps in it somewhere, momentum is a hard thing to stop."

Harder Battles To Come

The amount of attention and free media the campaign is attracting may level the playing field, despite Romney's money and organizational advantages.

"Florida is absolutely, immediately turned into the epicenter of politics," MacManus says.

Gingrich has already been smart about targeting his campaign to Florida's major media markets, she says. His performance in debates in South Carolina was key to his victory there and there will be two debates in Florida this week.

As it became clear on Saturday morning that he might not win in South Carolina, Romney committed to appearing in those debates.

Romney has already made it clear he intends to continue pressing Gingrich about money he received from mortgage giant Freddie Mac, as well as his ethical reprimand 15 years ago as House speaker.

"If we think it's been a hard-fought race up to now, we ain't seen nothing yet," says Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California. "It's going to get only more intense in the weeks ahead."

The Way Things Break

Romney has held a lead in recent Florida polls — but then, that was true in South Carolina until just a few days ago.

During the week leading up to the South Carolina primary, everything seemed to go wrong for Romney, who was not able to provide a clear answer to calls that he release his personal tax returns. Such stumbles over his personal finances were enough to open doubts in the minds of some wavering voters, says Jim Guth, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.

Meanwhile, everything broke right for Gingrich. He won the endorsement of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who dropped out of the race Thursday, helping to solidify his position as Romney's top conservative challenger.

Gingrich also profited from aggressive performances in a pair of debates, turning even an ex-wife's complaints about his infidelity into a well-received attack on the news media.

"Quite honestly, at the beginning of the process, I wouldn't have given Gingrich a chance," says Scott Huffmon, a pollster at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.

"What I underestimated was the anger of the electorate," Huffmon says. "He tapped into that near-perfectly in the last two debates."

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney waves as he takes the stage during his primary night rally Saturday in Columbia, S.C.
Joe Raedle / Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney waves as he takes the stage during his primary night rally Saturday in Columbia, S.C.

On To Romney's Court

Florida looks a lot different from South Carolina. Its population is older and more urbanized, while its GOP electorate is 11 percent Hispanic.

"We are much larger and far more diverse," says Pete Dunbar, a longtime GOP consultant in Florida.

Like other observers, Dunbar emphasized the importance of Romney's organizational strength as the campaign turns to Florida. Early voting is already well under way there.

"One of the things I noticed is that the Romney organization had people going in groups to vote," Dunbar says.

Dunbar is neutral, but Romney supporters said that their champion's hopes have never been pinned on sweeping the early states.

"The Romney campaign from the start planned that this would be a long campaign," says David Oman, a Romney adviser in Iowa. "If anyone in the media or in any of the campaigns — or certainly the Romney campaign — had said one month ago that Gov. Romney would have won all three [states], people would have said they were nuts."

Drawing Out The Campaign

Oman and other observers suggest that voters in South Carolina hoped, by depriving Romney of what would have been a knockout win, to lengthen the campaign.

"I think the drawn-out primary four years ago was good for [President] Obama," says Alan Cobb, vice president of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative activist group. "It gave Obama more exposure."

Gingrich's big win will guarantee a longer primary season. If Romney had won South Carolina in a decisive fashion, he would have been anointed the GOP nominee by the news media.

"Regardless of the Florida outcome, I think Super Tuesday now matters," says John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University, referring to the cluster of 10 primaries and caucuses to be held on March 6.

Sides predicts that Republican leaders who don't like Gingrich — and are skeptical that he would be electable against Obama — will train their fire on him in the weeks to come, as they did when he was briefly the leader in polls in the late fall.

"Gingrich doesn't have the money or organization to compete strongly in all the Super Tuesday states," Sides says.

Others point out that he lacked the organization even to get on the ballot that day in his home state of Virginia.

A Short-Lived Victory?

It's possible, if Romney ultimately prevails at the end of a marathon battle, that Gingrich's decisive win in South Carolina won't matter.

But given the volatility of the campaign thus far — and the way Gingrich has been able to bounce back from earlier setbacks and his ability to take advantage of his free-media opportunities — no one is willing to say with certainty that South Carolina will ultimately prove to be his high-water mark.

On Saturday night, Gingrich sent out an email "Money Bomb" to supporters asking them to donate to a two-day fundraising drive to deliver the "knockout punch" in Florida. That could give him a much-needed infusion of cash.

The debates being held this week in Florida "can make or break Romney, either validating the polls or not," says MacManus, the political scientist in Tampa.

Romney has yet to show he can convince a majority of Republicans that he is their strongest potential nominee. That matters more than ever now, when it appears that Gingrich will solidly occupy the position of being the race's clear alternative.

"If Romney goes on to win the nomination, you've got to say that South Carolina was just a blip," says David Woodard, a political scientist at Clemson University. "But the question remains, how well is Romney going to do with the base?"

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