What Happened to Romney, the ‘Inevitable’ Candidate?

Newt Gingrich has pulled a Double Lazarus, coming back from the dead twice in this campaign to win decisively in South Carolina.

Exit polls showed a broad and deep victory in this conservative state, with Newt winning tea partiers and evangelicals — as well as both men and women.  Interestingly, Newt won voters who said the economy was the number one issue as well as people who said their priority was defeating President Barack Obama in November.

This not only turns the Romney campaign’s electability narrative on its head, it’s got to be making the Obama camp in Chicago smile, looking at a long GOP nomination fight ahead.

Mitt Romney’s sole strong suits were people making over $200,000, moderates and non-tea partiers, making him look like Jon Huntsman in this primary state.  South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s endorsement did not have the impact that was projected — pulling back the curtain on her 34% in-state approval rating despite her rising national profile.

At the Romney HQ, the atmosphere was like someone died before a big party, but the caterers still arrived, standing glumly behind the cash bar.

Supporters on bleachers behind the podium were prompted to chant “Florida! Florida!” as a way of pivoting attention forward from the debacle that was unfolding as Newt was declared the early winner.

The state of the race has fundamentally changed in the course of one dizzying week.  The inevitability narrative that surrounded Mitt Romney — along with the claim that he was the only GOP candidate to ever win both Iowa and New Hampshire consecutively — has collapsed. Rick Santorum was belatedly declared the real winner of Iowa on Thursday morning and that same day Rick Perry dropped out of the race and immediately endorsed Newt Gingrich.

Over the course of two contentious debates, Romney was hammered on his failure to release his taxes, the revelation that he pays a 15% rate and reports that he has accounts in the Cayman Islands.  The result was a stunning reversal of fortune, from 10 percentage points up in the polls a week ago to a double-digit loss on primary day.

Gingrich revived his campaign with pugnacious debate performances punctuated with deep policy knowledge. Two-thirds of voters said the debates had helped determine their vote and not surprisingly those voters mostly cast their ballot for Gingrich.

In addition, Team Newt’s ever-present attack on Mitt Romney as a “Massachusetts Moderate” seemed to have special resonance south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Two quick notes on the other two candidates: Rick Santorum and Ron Paul.  Days after New Hampshire, a meeting of evangelical big-wigs at a Texas ranch resulted in a broad-based endorsement of Rick Santorum — but the religious right’s benediction failed to create a surge of support for Santorum even in this stereotypically religious and socially conservative state.

That should call into the question the real influence the religious right’s self-appointed leaders actually have in the Republican electorate.

Ron Paul had a strong showing in a state where conventional wisdom stated that his libertarian beliefs would fail to attract broad-based support because of the evangelicals’ disproportionate influence.

I spoke to several voters who had cast ballots for Ron Paul, ranging from fiscal conservatives who leaned libertarian on social issues to Democrats who voted for Paul in this open primary because they agreed with his views on civil liberties and non-interventionist foreign policy.

In his concession speech, Romney started by recycling lines from his New Hampshire victory, but delivered in a very different tone.  His attacks on President Obama were now balanced by indirect hits on Newt, trying to tie him to what was styled as Democratic-oriented attacks on free market capitalism.  This primary fight is getting personal.

The big picture takeaway: Florida is now set up to be the tie-breaker — its traditional role in the January gauntlet. A different candidate has won each of the three primary contests to date, reminding Republicans and political observers to call off the coronation and give the people a chance to vote.

We are looking at a long-primary fight now — almost certain to extend through Super Tuesday in early March. All of this is good in my book — the more voters who have a say in picking the Republican nominee, the better the democratic process is served.

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