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CHARLESTON, S.C. — Newt Gingrich is poised to lock up the ‘First In South’ Republican primary today with a comeback victory that will deal a blow — at least temporarily — to Mitt Romney’s presumptive inevitability as the Republican nominee.It’s a remarkable turnaround for a campaign that appeared to be on its last legs after a devastating fifth-place finish in New Hampshire less than two weeks ago. A strong first-place finish here will effectively establish Gingrich as the only not-Mitt Romney (and not-Ron Paul) candidate left in the race, setting up an interparty battle between the GOP Establishment and the grassroots conservative base.
The latest Gallup polls show Romney is losing his edge nationally, so Gingrich has an opportunity to make the race competitive in Florida, and possibly well beyond that. But can his barebones, rollercoaster campaign deliver as the race moves on to bigger and more challenging contests? And can the volatile former House Speaker keep it together long enough to remain a contender?
Here are three possible scenarios for what could happen after South Carolina:
Gingrich flames out in Florida: The populous state and its expensive media markets are the first real financial test for presidential campaigns, and it is not clear that Gingrich’s barebones operation can compete with the well-oiled Mitt Machine there. Florida voters head to the polls on January 31, which gives Gingrich less than two weeks to build some fundraising and organizational momentum — and just enough time to completely implode.
More importantly, don’t underestimate how badly Mitt Romney wants this. Expect Romney to go balls-to-the-wall in the next two weeks, with aggressive flesh-pressing and some serious negativity. The Romney campaign — and the pro-Mitt Romney SuperPAC — are relatively flush, so Florida will likely see a flood of negative ad buys, mailings, and robocalls against Gingrich. Given how vitriolic the race in South Carolina has been, Florida could get pretty dirty.
If the Florida primary is a Romney blowout, it will almost certainly be the end for Gingrich. Romney will have regained his aura of inevitability, and Gingrich will likely limp along until his final collapse. Of course, Romney will still have to contend with Ron Paul, but that’s another story.
There is also a possibility that Gingrich and/or his campaign will totally self-destruct and Santorum will rise once again. It seems unlikely now — but so did Herman Cain.
Gingrich sticks it out in Florida — but can’t carry Newtmentum to Super Tuesday: The good news for Gingrich is that expectations are low in Florida — all he has to do is eke out a decent second place finish (which will be easier if he manages to knock Santorum out of the running.) But after Florida, Romney (and Paul) more or less have a lock on the contests until Super Tuesday on March 6.
Between the Florida primary and Super Tuesday, five states — Nevada, Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, and Washington — will hold caucuses and three — Missouri, Arizona, and Michigan — will vote in primaries. Both Paul and Romney have built up strong organisations in the caucus states, while Gingrich, to the best of our knowledge, has almost no presence. And Romney has a huge advantage in both Michigan and Missouri, where Gingrich isn’t even on the ballot.
If Romney and Paul keep up their sustained attacks against Gingrich and wrap up the one and two spots in the February contests, Newt will likely have a hard time convincing people that he is still a viable contender.
Gingrich makes it Super Tuesday: A strong Gingrich finish in Florida could be enough to pull him through to March 6, particularly if he can raise some substantial cash. Delegates are rewarded proportionally until April, so he just has to remain competitive in at least some of the February nominating contests. (One could make the case that he has a shot in the Western states, which also happen to be swing states in the general election).
In the event that Gingrich can pull that off and keep his campaign intact until Super Tuesday, then we have a real race.