Winning South Carolina template could work for Gingrich campaign in Florida

While Gingrich's come-from-behind victory in Saturday's South Carolina primary has put a halt to discussions of Mitt Romney as the inevitable GOP nominee, the former Massachusetts governor remains the heavy favorite for the next primary contest in Florida and the Republican nomination.

For the former House speaker to fully claw his way back into contention, he'll have to put together a remarkable week in the lead-up to the Jan. 31 Sunshine state primary.

Luckily for Gingrich, he already has a template: his successful effort in South Carolina.

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The former Speaker's upset win in the Palmetto state — he was trailing by double digits in the polls as recently as Tuesday, and won by more than 10 percent — came on the heels of a fortunate confluence of events.

A packed debate schedule allowed Gingrich to shine in the forum to which he is perhaps best suited — and where Mitt Romney is least comfortable.

The exits of Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry from the GOP race also aided Gingrich, as conservatives disenchanted with Romney defected to the most viable alternative.


Influential conservative figures — including, perhaps most prominently, former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin — also rallied behind Gingrich's campaign, indicating that the establishment was not yet sold on a Mitt Romney nomination.

Remarkably, Gingrich has the opportunity to repeat many of these successes as the GOP presidential field turns their attention to Florida.

The GOP candidates are already scheduled to appear at two debates next week, including an NBC-hosted affair Monday evening in Tampa. 

Meanwhile, CBS "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer is pushing Romney and Gingrich to sit down for a third one-on-one debate on his program next weekend.

“I will tell you I personally would like to do that. I have a hunch that if you can get Gov. Romney to agree to the three of us to sit down next Sunday, it would be perfect and I suspect we’d be happy to come and do it," Gingrich told Schieffer, asking the host — who ordinarily is on the air for just 30 minutes - if he would extend his program for a full hour.

There is also the possibility that Rick Santorum could exit the race, pushing conservatives to coalesce around Gingrich's candidacy. While Santorum insisted Sunday that he felt "absolutely no pressure at all" to exit the contest, a Public Policy Polling report issued earlier this week showed the former senator with just 11 percent of likely Florida voters - 15 points behind Gingrich and 30 behind Romney.

Florida is an expensive state to campaign in, with 10 dispersed media markets and more expensive advertising rates than any of the earlier campaigns. That could provide a particular challenge to Santorum, who has always lagged behind the other GOP candidates in terms of fundraising and is used to campaigning on a shoestring budget. If conservative elites begin to pressure Santorum — much as they did earlier this week with Rick Perry — it's plausible that he could exit the race.

And Gingrich could see a boost as bigger names and influential conservative leaders rally behind his South Carolina victory. Palin, who has not yet formally endorsed, nevertheless referred to Gingrich as the "front-runner" and said she was encouraged that the race would continue on.

“The more vetting, the more ideas vigorously debated, the better it is for the electorate,” Palin said Saturday on Fox News. “So we need this to continue, and I’m glad to see the result that was tonight knowing that it will continue and we can start talking about more of the solutions that this country needs to get back on the right track.”

Of course, Gingrich will need all three of these factors to continue in the coming days for him to overtake Romney's commanding lead in Florida’s polls. And while the momentum from his South Carolina win should help him make his case in the Sunshine state, it's tough to depend on everything going right. 

Nor can Gingrich count on another tailor-made media-driven news cycle — like the allegations presented by his ex-wife in an interview with ABC News earlier this week — that enabled him to grab the bully pulpit and rail against his favorite target: "liberal elites."

Furthermore, Mitt Romney's campaign is looking to right course.

Already Sunday, Romney announced that he would release his 2010 tax return and 2011 estimate online, taking a particularly tough arrow out of Gingrich's quiver.  South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint (R) blamed Romney's loss in the state partially on his botched explanation of when he would release the returns.

“I think we made a mistake holding off as long as we did,” Romney said in an interview on Fox News Sunday. “It was a distraction. We want to get back to the real issues of the campaign.”

Romney has also started attacking Gingrich from the right, hoping to undermine his popularity among the conservatives that constitute his base.

“I think the speaker has some explaining to do sitting on the sofa with Nancy Pelosi and arguing for climate change regulation, calling the Ryan plan ‘right-wing social engineering,’” Romney said. “Look over his record and you’ll see he’s not as conservative, not as reliable a conservative leader, as people might have imagined.”

And a Santorum exit might be little more than wishful thinking on the part of the Gingrich campaign. The Pennsylvania senator has already released his Florida campaign schedule and has repeatedly noted that each leading candidate has one primary win.

"Florida is a tough state for everyone, it's very, very expensive… [but] we feel like we can go and compete there," Santorum said Sunday on CNN. "This race is not going to be over in Florida, it's not going to be over I think by Super Tuesday."

The Sunshine state will prove a tough, uphill battle for Gingrich. But as the former speaker proved this week in South Carolina, primary battles are ripe for unforeseen surprises.