x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Newt Gingrich takes South Carolina to blow Republican race wide open

Former leader of the House of Representatives takes South Carolina in stunning turnaround that changes contest.

So comfortable was Mr Gingrich’s victory that Mr Romney conceded with only half the votes counted.
So comfortable was Mr Gingrich’s victory that Mr Romney conceded with only half the votes counted.

WASHINGTON // Newt Gingrich, the former leader of the House of Representatives, blew the Republican race to challenge Barack Obama for the US presidency in November wide open on Saturday with a come-from-behind victory in South Carolina.

With 95 per cent of the vote counted, Mr Gingrich had 40.6 per cent of the vote, easily beating Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, into second at 27.1 per cent. Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator and Ron Paul, the Texas congressman, came in at 17.2 and 13.3 per cent respectively.

It marked a stunning turnaround for Mr Gingrich who had been trailing Mr Romney, until then the clear frontrunner, in the polls just three days ago. But with momentum on his side, a barrage of negative advertising putting Mr Romney on the defensive, and another strong performance in Thursday’s presidential debate, Mr Gingrich proved unstoppable.

“It is very humbling and very sobering to have so many people who so deeply want their country to get back on the right track,” Mr Gingrich told supporters in his victory speech on Saturday.

The result means that a race that appeared almost sewn up is now turning into a very closely fought contest. Mr Romney still has the most money and the biggest campaign staff, but Mr Gingrich has momentum and neither Mr Santorum nor Mr Paul show any sign of being ready to quit. But in a sign of his growing confidence, Mr Gingrich borrowed a page from Mr Romney’s campaign and devoted most of his victory speech last night to attacking Mr Obama, almost ignoring his Republican rivals, except a cursory nod to Mr Romney whom he congratulated for being “hardworking”.

“If Barack Obama can get re-elected after this disaster,” Mr Gingrich told jubilant supporters, referring to Mr Obama’s first term in office, “just think how radical he would be in a second term." Mr Gingrich also took another pop at the media, which he has blamed for dragging up his personal past in order to undermine him, as well as “elites” who have been trying to “force us to quit being American”. And in the kind of populist rhetoric that he has wielded to great effect during his campaign, he vowed that if elected president, he would pursue energy independence so “no American again ever bows to a Saudi king”.

So comfortable was Mr Gingrich’s victory that Mr Romney conceded with only half the votes counted. Congratulating Mr Gingrich, Mr Romney said the race was now going to be “even more interesting”. Mr Romney will be reeling from a couple of very bad days, however. Not only did he lose South Carolina, where he long seemed certain to win, with an opening victory in the Iowa caucus stripped from him on Thursday in favour of Mr Santorum, Mr Romney‘s momentum has screeched to a halt.

His concession speech on Saturday betrayed the degree to which Mr Gingrich has rattled him. He had, he told his supporters in South Carolina, expected a “frontal assault on free enterprise” from Democrats, but not from fellow Republicans, a reference to a barrage of advertising by his rivals that questioned the way the multi-millionaire made his money.

Moreover, he said, taking direct aim at Mr Gingrich, the former leader of the house would not be able to offer a strong challenge to Mr Obama. Republicans “can't be led to victory by someone who also has never led a business or a state.” Mr Santorum said Mr Gingrich deserved credit for “an amazing victory”, but had earlier had harsh words for the man who is his closest rival for the more conservative elements of the Republican Party.

“Those who’ve worked with Newt Gingrich know what’s in store” for the Republican party if Mr Gingrich won the nomination, Mr Santorum told CNN earlier Saturday. Mr Paul, meanwhile, showed no sign of faltering. He reminded a typically boisterous crowd of supporters that less than two per cent of the total number of delegates had so far been decided in the first three primaries.

“This is the beginning of a long, hard job,” Mr Paul said. “We will continue to do this. There’s no doubt about it.” The next primary will be held on January 31 in Florida.

okarmi@thenational.ae