As the world knows by now, South Carolina has thrown us another election
shocker. Instead of anointing Mitt Romney as the Republican Party
nominee, South Carolinian voters blew the race wide open. Three
different candidates have won the first three races. This is an amazing
first for Republicans.
Obviously, Saturday night was a dramatic turnaround for Newt Gingrich. He has gone from afterthought to front-runner to flame-out to first place. Who knows what is next!
I have met Gingrich and like him. He is charismatic, charming and energetic. Filled with many ideas, he is the candidate most likely to shake up our nation’s K-12 public education system, the most important issue to me and the key to American prosperity. But Gingrich’s faults are equally numerous. First and foremost, one never knows which Newt Gingrich is going to turn up.
This is a man I have witnessed speak so eloquently about education reform and school choice; who championed the congressional campaign of Princella Smith, a young African-American from Arkansas; and who has spoken favorably of the red-card solution to immigration reform. But the Newt Gingrich we saw in South Carolina engaged in what sounds like base race-baiting to most African-Americans, regardless of party affiliation. He has played on the worst racial imagery by calling the president of the United States the food-stamp president. Does he feel that he has to toss away his principles to get votes?
Gingrich won big — getting more than 40 percent of the vote with a double-digit margin over Mitt Romney. This definitely puts Gingrich back into the presidential sweepstakes. Going into tonight’s NBC debate and with the departure of most of the also-rans, the race now is between Gingrich and Romney. The latter retains an advantage in money, organization and an apparent dedication to free-market principles. However, losing South Carolina is a huge blow. His carefully choreographed parade to the nomination has been disrupted. Can he and his campaign team react effectively to the unexpected?
Some of the attacks on Romney have not been fair — companies like Bain Capital are part of a free economic system in which other firms fail. However, he goes to Florida badly damaged. He looks more out of touch with average Americans and has lost his aura of inevitability. He still has the strongest claim to being the best economic manager, but he will have to do a much better job convincing people that the free market and education reform are what we need in challenging times.
Rick Santorum came in a distant third and now is skating nearest the exit. If he can’t sell his extreme social conservatism, including hostility to contraception and gays, in South Carolina, where evangelicals are heavily represented, he isn’t likely to win many votes in Florida. And he likely will lack the money as well as the message to compete as the primaries move north and west.
Ron Paul continues to seek votes more for his movement than for his candidacy. I’m not a fan for various reasons, including the racially tinged newsletters, for which he is responsible, even if he didn’t write them. However, he demonstrates that there is a sizable constituency in the Republican Party for radical change. He will pose a challenge to whoever wins the nomination. If Paul leaves the Republican Party to stage an independent run for president, he may well doom the GOP in November.
American elections have a way of surprising us. The 2012 campaign is proving to be no different.
Michelle D. Bernard is the president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy and is a MSNBC political analyst.