Riding a wave of recent momentum, on Saturday Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina primary. Mitt Romney took second place, followed by Rick Santorum and Ron Paul.
It's an outcome that seemed unlikely just a week ago, when conventional wisdom said that Romney would handily take the state. Back then he was basking in the glow of an apparent win in Iowa, a New Hampshire victory and a huge lead in South Carolina polls. Then things took a drastic turn.
In two debates Newt Gingrich, with memorably aggressive performances, grabbed the attention of the state's conservative electorate. After questions about racially offensive comments and his past marital infidelity, he brashly redirected the conversation to his view of the "despicable" liberal media bias, rallying conservative voters behind him. As Romney, meanwhile, floundered on basic questions about releasing his tax returns, he lost even more steam. It also didn't help matters when, after a further review of the tally, Rick Santorum was declared the real winner of the Iowa caucuses. Or when Rick Perry dropped out of the race, endorsing Gingrich on the grounds that there is "no question" that he's a true conservative.
In this highly unpredictable Republican primary season, Saturday's results mark the first time in modern history that a different candidate has won each of the first three contests. And in a fractured Republican Party, Gingrich is winning over staunch conservatives, while Santorum has evangelical support, and Romney appeals to moderates. But as the race moves to Florida, with his surging campaign, Gingrich is feeling especially optimistic about his chances.
"The American people feel that they have elites that have been trying for a half century to force us to quit being American and become some kind of other system," he told supporters on Saturday, in his explanation of the South Carolina victory. "I articulate the deepest-felt values of the American people."
If Gingrich were to become the Republican nominee, it would be welcome news to the Obama campaign. Although he's currently riding high in the GOP primaries, he doesn't fare so well on a national scale. A recent Fox News poll shows that 56 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of Gingrich, compared with 46 percent for President Obama, a straggling position paralleled in surveys by Public Policy Polling and CBS/New York Times. Gingrich's camp clearly believes he'll be able to turn that around. Do you?
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.