As of Friday afternoon polls show Newt Gingrich surging in South Carolina (leading in some). Meanwhile the Romney camp has been battered by a plethora of bad news in the last week.
First, Romney’s defenses to not releasing his tax returns has not resonated with voters. Second, Newt Gingrich has been buoyed by two strong debate performances. Third, Rick Perry suspended his campaign and endorsed Newt Gingrich. Perry’s narrow band of support seems to have moved to Gingrich, minus his big donors that now favor Romney. Lastly, Gingrich played the sympathy card with GOP voters. When the media did an interview with his second ex-wife where she unloaded on him Gingrich blasted the media. In the debate Thursday, to a standing ovation, Gingrich lambasted CNN moderator John King for opening the debate on a question about his marriage.
But despite Gingrich now having the strong possibility of winning South Carolina the race is still under Romney’s control. The national Gallup tracking poll shows tightening but Romney still leads Gingrich 30%-20%. Romney still attracts strong support in the Northeast, Midwest and West while Gingrich is running stronger in the Southwest and South.
Then the calendar after South Carolina must be considered. After South Carolina comes Florida the next Saturday. Keep in mind that up until now there have been no winner take all states. Combined IA and NH have barely given any delegates. South Carolina is giving 28 delegates but again it distributes them on a proportional basis. But when Florida rolls around the state will give out 50 delegates and on a winner-take-all basis. And here for Gingrich is his biggest hurdle.
Gingrich is running up against the facts the calendar is favorable to Romney and that he has no national infrastructure. In the week after the SC primary two more debates will be held in Florida. But after the Florida primary there is a lull in the debates. Gingrich’s campaign has been built on the fact he can dominate debates but consider this. After Florida come caucuses in Nevada, Colorado and Minnesota. Meanwhile the two states that have primaries that month, AZ and Michigan, favor Romney.
In Florida alone Romney’s campaign has a dozen offices open. A pro-Romney PAC is already blasting Gingrich on the airwaves. Worse for the Gingrich camp, the states that vote in February are all over the country. This means organization and money is a necessity.
It is conceivable that Gingrich could not win a single Caucus or Primary after SC and head into Super Tuesday limping along. If that is the case Romney could end the race on that day. Due to the calendar even Ron Paul could end up being ahead of Gingrich in delegates by the end of February. If that is the case then Romney most likely locks it up the nomination Super Tuesday.
Then there is what I like to call the “Santorum Factor.” Santorum has fallen off in South Carolina and nationally as Gingrich as surged. Ron Paul’s numbers have essentially stayed stagnant. In the debate on Thursday Santorum was rearing for a fight. He attacked both Gingrich and Romney on ideological lines and made plain his appeal that he is the only true conservative in the race.
If Santorum finishes third in South Carolina, ahead of Paul, he may decide to stay in the race. If he does and stays in until Florida the conservative vote could continue to be divided. Though Santorum may only by then pull 5-10% of the vote away from Gingrich in Florida combined with Paul voters and the more moderate make-up of the state electorate Romney could pull through in a squeaker.
Add all these factors up and by the time of Super Tuesday Romney could have all but locked up the nomination despite losing South Carolina. And even if Romney hasn’t his organization and infrastructure ensures he will have a very good night on Super Tuesday. Then it all comes down to the race to reach 1,144 delegates.