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South Carolina Tightens As Newt Gingrich Surges

With a little less than 48 hours to go until voting starts in South Carolina, there are a number of signs out there that the race has tightened significantly and that Newt Gingrich is coming up fast on Mitt Romney’s heels:

 MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. — For Mitt Romney, the South Carolina primary probably can’t come soon enough, as he faced a day of nonstop negative ads,  questions about his religion and his taxes, and new poll numbers that showed his comfortable lead narrowing.

While he still must debate his rivals on Thursday night, Mr. Romney remains the favorite here for the primary on Saturday. According to a CNN/Time/ORC International poll released on Wednesday, 33 percent of likely Republican voters in South Carolina support him, giving him a 10 percentage point lead over his next closest rival, Newt Gingrich.

But the poll showed the gap between Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich — and, to a lesser extent, Rick Santorum — had closed from 19 percentage points since the last CNN poll two weeks ago.

And Mr. Romney was forced to spend a second day explaining his disclosure on Tuesday that he had been paying an effective, approximate tax rate of 15 percent, a job made all the harder when one of his best-known supporters, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, said he agreed with Mr. Romney’s critics that he should release his tax records “sooner rather than later.” (Mr. Romney had said he would do so in April.)

He faced new questions about ABC News reports that he directed millions in cash and stock to the Mormon Church — focusing attention on his religion in a state whose key Republican voting bloc of Christian evangelicals has long been suspicious of it. And he faced two new attack ads from Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum noting that his Massachusetts health care plan included “taxpayer-funded abortions.”

(Mr. Romney’s campaign responded that the decision to do so was made by an independent authority and in accordance with Massachusetts law.)

Those advertisements were part of a barrage of negative ads, one of the largest that longtime political strategists had ever seen, with anti-Romney messages running in virtually every commercial break of the local evening news on Wednesday.

Even Mr. Romney’s eight-vote victory in Iowa could be in doubt. Two people familiar with the state’s caucus certification process said that the Republican Party there was likely to announce on Thursday that it could not officially declare a winner of its Jan. 3 contest in time for its self-imposed deadline, on Thursday, putting Mr. Romney’s announced victory at least temporarily in doubt — and threatening to erase it entirely. Taken together, it was unfamiliar territory for Mr. Romney, who so far this year has been able to sit back comfortably as his closest rivals have largely fought among themselves to emerge as his leading challenger.

But his competitors, facing the prospect that Mr. Romney would be considered close to clinching the nomination if he won here on Saturday, have brought a new sense of urgency to the task of stopping — or at least slowing — him. On Wednesday, they had succeeded at least in throwing Mr. Romney off of his strategy of keeping his focus on President Obama and leaving attacks on his rivals to the well-financed “super PAC” that supports him.

The CNN/Time poll results probably aren’t the most accurate measure of the state of the race at this point because the poll was conducted between January 13th and January 17th, meaning that it only captured one day of poling after Monday’s debate, which Newt Gingrich is widely seen as having won, and which seems to have significantly changed the tenor of the race.

A new NBC News/Marist poll that was conducted nearly entirely after the debate, meanwhile, shows more slippage by Romney and increased momentum for Gingrich:

With two days until South Carolina’s Republican presidential primary, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney holds a 10-point lead over former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, according to a new NBC News/Marist poll of the GOP contest in that state.

But a day after Monday night’s Republican debate – where Gingrich’s performance was considered strong and Romney’s uneven – the poll also shows the former speaker gaining considerable ground on the GOP frontrunner.

Overall in the two-day survey – conducted Monday and Tuesday – Romney gets the support of 34 percent of likely Republican primary voters in South Carolina, including those who are undecided but leaning toward a candidate.

He’s followed by Gingrich at 24 percent, Texas Rep. Ron Paul at 16 percent, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum at 14 percent, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry at 4 percent.

But when you focus solely on the post-debate numbers, it’s quite apparent that Gingrich is benefiting significantly from his performance that night, and that he has the momentum going into tonight’s final debate:

On Monday before the debate, Romney led Gingrich in the poll by 15 points, 37 percent to 22 percent. But on Tuesday, that advantage narrowed to just five points, 31 percent to 26 percent.

“The numbers on Tuesday were very different than the numbers on Monday,” says Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, which conducted the survey.

And they were especially different among the most conservative segments of the GOP electorate in South Carolina.

On Monday, Gingrich held a five-point lead over Romney among those describing themselves as “very conservative,” 32 percent to 27 percent, with Santorum getting 24 percent.

But the next day, Gingrich’s percentage with this group jumped up to 35 percent, Santorum’s declined to 20 percent and Romney’s sunk to 19 percent.

Among Tea Party supporters on Monday, Romney edged Gingrich, 35 percent to 27 percent. But on Tuesday, the numbers flipped – with Gingrich at 34 percent and Romney at 27 percent.

And a similar change occurred among likely South Carolina primary voters who are evangelical Christians. On Monday, Romney led Gingrich here, 36 percent to 22 percent, with Santorum at 18 percent. On Tuesday, it was Gingrich at 27 percent, Romney at 22 percent, and Santorum at 19 percent.

To emphasize the point, a new poll from Politico taken exclusively after the debate shows that South Carolina has become a two-man race between Romeny and Santorum, with the rest of the field far behind:

CHARLESTON, S.C. — Mitt Romney remains the clear front-runner in South Carolina, but the intensity of Newt Gingrich’s support places him within striking distance going into Saturday’s Republican primary.

A POLITICO poll of likely voters shows the former Massachusetts governor atop the GOP field with 37 percent and the former House speaker at 30 percent.

Texas Congressman Ron Paul trails with 11 percent, followed by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum at 10 percent and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who barely registers at 4 percent. Just 8 percent remain undecided.

“You really have a two-man race, with Paul and Santorum battling back and forth for No. 3 and 4 and Perry out of the mix,” said Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster whose firm, the Tarrance Group, conducted the survey on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Gingrich has momentum: When voters are asked to volunteer the name of the candidate they plan to vote for without being prompted by a list of names to choose from, Romney’s lead over Gingrich slips to 31 percent to 29 percent. Among those who say they will “definitely” support their candidate of choice, the two are essentially tied, with Romney at 23 percent and Gingrich at 22 percent.

One reason the former House speaker is pressing Romney: his consistently strong debate performances. Among those who claim they’ve watched all or almost all of the 16 debates so far, 48 percent support Gingrich compared with 22 percent who back Romney. Gingrich ranks fourth, at 9 percent, among Republicans who did not catch any of the debates.

A debate here Thursday night offers him another chance to shine, just 36 hours before polls open.

Finally, in what is either a sign of just how much Gingrich has surged in just three days or an outlier, there’s a new poll from Insider Advantage that has Gingrich was a lead, albeit inside the margin of error:

ATLANTA — The seesaw Republican primary has tipped again in a poll conducted Wednesday night, giving Newt Gingrich the lead in the South Carolina primary.

Gingrich reversed the momentum of Mitt Romney who had an expanding lead in the same poll Sunday night.

Gingrich’s 32 percent to Romney’s 29 puts the two inside the poll’s 3.8 percent margin of error, but the 11-point lead Romney held in the Sunday evening survey has evaporated. And Romney’s strength had been building after wins in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

The polls were conducted by InsiderAdvantage/Majority Opinion Research. Wednesday’s was conducted for the Augusta Chronicle and the Savannah Morning News of 718 registered voters who said they were voting in Saturday’s GOP primary.

Ron Paul is in third place with 15 percent, followed by Rick Santorum’s 11 and Rick Perry’s 3. Seven percent remain undecided and are unlikely to vote while 3 percent favor some other candidate not listed as a choice.

So, after all of that, here’s where the RealClearPolitics poll averages stand:

The guys at Public Policy Polling are hinting on their Twitter feed that in their first night of Iowa polling last night, Gingrich and Romney are basically tied with the rest of the field far behind with voters who had previously been supporting candidates like Santorum principally lining up behind Gingrich. If this holds up through Saturday, then we could end up seeing the first real battle between Romney and a “conservative” candidate who isn’t being hobbled by the fact that other candidates are pealing voters away from him. Will that be enough for Gingrich to knock Romney off? And what if he does?

As to the first question, the answer to that question remains up in the air but it does make tonight’s debate even more important. If Romney has another weak performance while Gingrich succeeds in stirring up the conservatives then the Gingrich surge may well be strong enough to propel him to a win. Even if it’s just a narrow one, it will be a big deal because it will be the first real barrier in Romney’s way since this race has started. However, if Romney is able to come out of tonight strong enough it might just be enough to stop the Gingrich surge. Even if Romney only wins South Carolina narrowly, it would still be a win and a win in a southern state to boot. With polls in Florida currently showing Romney far, far ahead of everyone it would be the beginning of the end of the Republican race.

As to the second question, a Gingrich win in South Carolina would completely change the way the media is covering this race. The Romney inevitability story would be gone, at least for now, and pundits would start pointing out the fact that no candidate who has lost the South Carolina primary has gone on to win the Republican nomination. That last point, of course, is an historical coincidence that doesn’t necessarily have to be true every year, but it could be enough to at least temporary halt Romney’s momentum and extend the race. From South Carolina, the race would move on to Florida where, as I noted, Romney holds what seems like an insurmountable lead right now and also has what by all accounts is the most sophisticated ground operation in the state.Whether Gingrich can actually compete there or not is an open question, and a Romney win there on January 31st would reinvigorate his campaign significantly.

So, in the end, a Gingrich victory in South Carolina may not change the ultimate outcome of the Republican race. It could lengthen it, though, and give the punditocracy something to talk about during the month of February. In all honestly, that may not be a bad thing for Romney going into a General Election race.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. PD Shaw says:

    Media reporting Perry dropping out.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  2. Fiona says:

    To win tonight’s debate, I think Romney is going to need to come clean about his taxes and agree to release his returns post haste. Apparently, his dad released his returns going back twelve years when he ran for president, showing again that Mitt’s nowhere near the man his father was.

    I suspect the returns will show a less than 15 percent effective tax rate, as well as a not insubstantial amount of income from speaking fees and other activities. Better for this kind of stuff to come out now, than during the general election. Maybe Romney will become a lot less tone deaf when speaking about the income inequality issue if he gets more practice.

    There’s no way that Mitt will be able to out dog whistle Newt on race, but if he can answer a few debate questions without equivocating he might be able to pull off a debate victory. I must admit to taking pleasure in watching the Gingrich and Romney take aim at each other’s sweet spots.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  3. Hey Norm says:

    This is an interesting development…especially given the rumors of Perry dropping out today.
    Of course if Gingrich does win, and given the added ambiguity of Iowa….
    Romney will still be the nominee.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  4. sam says:

    Hey, is that Mooslim symbol in the SC flag?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  5. Hey Norm says:

    @ Fiona…
    Does money stashed in offshore tax shelters show up on tax returns?

    “…Gingrich and Romney take aim at each other’s sweet spots…”

    That sounds dirty…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  6. What a clown circus.

    Newt Gingrich has pledged that on his first day as president he will set up a constitutional showdown by ordering the military to defy a supreme court ruling extending some legal rights to foreign terrorism suspects and captured enemy combatants in US custody.

    The crazy party is actually backing a guy to “protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” who has publicly pledged to dishonor that document.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  7. Rick Almeida says:

    The vast majority of advertising here has been Romney’s and Newt’s, and Newt’s is increasingly negative and directed specifically at Romney, so these results aren’t too surprising.

    What’s really surprised me is that Ron Paul is airing ads that specifically (by name) attack Rick Santorum.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  8. MBunge says:

    NEEWWWWWWT!

    Remember how much Romney was disliked by the other GOP candidates in 2008? Well, if Perry really is dropping out now, I don’t think there’s any question that he’s doing it specifically to stick it to Mitt.

    Mike

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  9. Hey Norm says:

    In addition to Gingrich’s surge:
    His wife is airing dirty laundry on ABC tonight.
    Perry’s out.
    Santorum won Iowa.
    Romney has money stashed in the Caymans.
    And weekly jobless claims fell to a four-year low last week.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    To emphasize the point, a new poll from Politico taken exclusively after the debate shows that South Carolina has become a two-man race between Romeny and Santorum, Gingrich, with the rest of the field far behind:

    @sam: Sharia!!!

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  11. ed says:

    So Gingrich is surging in South Carolina after making some highly publicized and wildly racist comments at a recent debate (moderated by a black man, one can’t help but note).

    Who could have predicted?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  12. michael reynolds says:

    TYPO alert:

    t South Carolina has become a two-man race between Romeny and Santorum, with the rest of the field far behind:

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  13. DRS says:

    Doug, I think you live to write these article headings. To paraphrase the Virgin Mandy: “You’re a naughty, naughty boy!” (Bragging points for those who get the reference.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  14. nancy c shepherd says:

    Lets see – what about the Clintons. Why would we want Hillary who did not know her husband had a 12 year affair when he ran for president, and then he allowed a woman to suck his penis. Hillary’s head in the sand all the way. I would rather have a man like Newt who is honest and whether he had an affair prior to getting a divorce, who cares. That has nothing to do with his character and ability to get this Country that i love back on the right rode. Just the thought of having Hillary back in the White House is very, very scary, and to have the press constantly covering for Obama Hussain is getting sickening. What about Obama who did crack cocaine and admitted it in his book. It is about time someone stood up to the Press. Just like ABC news, who employs the son the the Gov. of NY – how can we expect ABC to really be neutral. ABC news is in the pocket of Obama, as well as CBS, who now has Gayle King, friend of Oprah, who has no journalism experience, now doing the news. CBS and ABC, in my humble opinion cannot be relied upon to report the presidential debate fairly. CBS and ABC are in Obama’s pocket and with a Muslin President, if this President is re-elected, I am afraid of what will become of my Country. CNN should be ashamed of its moderator. We need to have Rush do the debates because that is the only way the TRUTH will come out about Obama and his useless spending. How come CNN, ABC and CBS don’t ask the President why Obama put in a beer brewy, at the taxpayors expense? Obama loves to spend Americans money on his family and racist friends. We need to get this man out now!!!

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