Rick Santorum surged more than 20 points in Iowa between Christmas and January 3 and Newt Gingrich came from 9 points down to 12 points up in less than a week in South Carolina.
South Carolina always had the potential to restart the Republican nomination contest and it did. Newt Gingrich going away win of 12 points ended Romney’s inevitability and shifted the momentum going into the February 21 Florida primary.
Mitt Romney had a 20-point head start in Florida on Monday, January 17, but the momentum is with Gingrich, and Romney is now 9 points down (Jan. 23).
Florida, with 2 million Republican voters, has a track record of supporting more moderate candidates than South Carolina. In the 2008 Republican primary, Florida gave McCain a 36 percent win, followed by moderates Romney (31%) and Rudolph Giuliani (15%). The conservative Huckabee came in fourth with 13 percent of the vote.
Gingrich had a great week before South Carolina’s Saturday primary with two solid debate performances. His aggressive, but effective, attacks both shifted already engaged South Carolina voters and added more than 100,000 new voters. They came to believe that he was the person best able to beat President Obama, a position Romney held through the first two contests. And, Romney had a terrible week with the recount results in Iowa and his poor defense of this personal taxes and Bain Capital’s track record. Gingrich also became the primary conservative candidate as Rick Perry dropped out and joined Sarah Palin in endorsing him.
But, the real problem for Romney, which this primary exposed, is that he has yet to connect with the bulk of Republican voters, leaving him highly vulnerable to a surge as demonstrated by Rick Santorum at the end in Iowa and Gingrich in South Carolina.