- Hollis Felkel: Gingrich picked up late-deciding conservatives, tea partiers
- Felkel: Tax returns, speaking fees, Santorum win in Iowa plagued Romney
- Felkel: South Carolinians want, above all, someone tough enough to beat Obama
- This vote shows it's a marathon, not a sprint, to the nomination, he writes
It was the perfect storm. Newt Gingrich seized on one of the wildest weeks ever in primary politics to win Saturday's South Carolina Republican presidential primary, taking 40% of the vote in a contest that showed Republicans are energized and focused on beating President Obama.
Clearly, Gingrich deserves a lot of credit. After poor finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, he not only got his footing, he also found his voice. The former speaker of the House picked up the undecided votes in the last days of the campaign, apparently taking them from Mitt Romney (along the coast) and from Rick Santorum (in socially conservative upstate South Carolina). He picked up votes everywhere, winning 43 out of 46 counties in a primary that had a record turnout. To be fair, Romney, who finished second with 28% of the vote, did himself no favors and arguably had perhaps the worst week imaginable.
A Gingrich win seemed highly unlikely just seven days ago, and yet he won by double digits. After Romney's mistakes, the withdrawal of Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry, and two outstanding debate performances, Gingrich is alive and kicking. He owes special thanks (and maybe even a trip to the Greek Isles) to the debate questioners from this past week. Over 64% of the voters who were asked in exit polls said the debates made a big difference.
As for Romney, it was ugly. Of the "super seven" key counties GOP candidates must target, he won three. Romney's poor responses on the pending release of his tax returns, his comments on speaking fees, and the discovery that Santorum, not he, had actually won Iowa were just too much to withstand.
Romney was forced to make a serious attempt in the Palmetto State, something he had never really planned on doing. The problem was that he had never developed a serious organizational presence to withstand a whirlwind of bad press. What money he spent, and it was a lot, was on television. Gov. Nikki Haley's endorsement did little to help -- and might have even hurt among some voters. That will be up for discussion, especially after her somewhat odd decision to skip the election night speech and not stand by her man.
Clearly, Romney has work to do -- and Florida, where he has been running ads for weeks, is where it has to happen. There he is already well-organized, but unless he can find a way to generate real excitement about his candidacy, and answer some simple questions, he could be in trouble.
Santorum and Ron Paul have both vowed to fight on. Paul tripled his South Carolina vote from 2008 and so claimed "victory" of sorts. But Santorum failed to convince voters that he, not Gingrich, is the right alternative to Romney. Santorum doesn't seem to get any solid support beyond those so-called "value voters" -- something Gingrich clearly has been able to do. It is just very hard to see a path forward for Santorum.
In the end, beating Obama is very important to GOP voters in South Carolina -- very important. More people cited this as the deciding factor than in Iowa or New Hampshire. South Carolina voters saw Gingrich as the guy who is feisty enough to go toe to toe with the incumbent. He's demonstrated he is a survivor who is able to get votes from social conservatives, tea party members and "regular" Republicans.
Newt can enjoy his victory now -- he successfully tapped into the voters' anti-establishment mindset, he says all the right things in the debates, and oh yes, he really takes it to the media. From a GOP primary voter's point of view, what's not to like?
Well, for starters there is the legitimate concern that his negatives with independent voters are sky-high, and he can't seem to keep his enormous appreciation for his own value in check. Or as Santorum put it last week, he has never had trouble with grandiosity. The point is Gingrich historically has been undisciplined. Which candidate will appear today, the "new Newt" or the "old Newt"?
So what have we learned? We have been reminded this is a marathon, not a sprint. We know the GOP is not ready for a coronation: Three elections have come up with three different winners. We know that Romney has work to do, that Gingrich has lived to fight another day, that Santorum and Paul's support is and probably will remain confined to those already committed. And, thankfully, we know that here in South Carolina, those annoying robo-calls have finally stopped.
Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter
Join the conversation on Facebook