Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney beat his opponents and even a few expectations on Tuesday night. The frame in the media over the last 48 hours was that Romney was suffering from his “I like being able to fire people” gaffe and that he was closing worse than Newt Gingrich did in Iowa. And then he took nearly forty percent of the vote, like the polls had shown he would all along.
The campaign now moves to South Carolina, where the polling has been an exacerbated version of the national picture all year. In this way the state is a bit like Iowa, which former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum nearly won over Romney with a late run to the top — South Carolina’s more conservative voters have been moving from candidate to candidate, testing them out before they reject and move on to the next one. Unfortunately for Santorum, Romney essentially cut him off on the way back to the top, winning Iowa and then dominating New Hampshire, regaining his stride as ‘Mr. Inevitable.’
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was the leader in the state by huge margins last month, but just as he’s fallen nationally and in other first primary states, he’s dropped back in South Carolina. Santorum was poised to be the next alternative to Romney, but the former governor has taken the lead as it seems his campaign may soon prevail in the GOP’s nominating process. Five new polls from the first week in January show Romney with a lead between five and nineteen percent, and his New Hampshire victory only serves to solidify it.
The TPM Poll Average of the GOP race in South Carolina shows Romney with a nearly ten point lead.
The thing to watch for is just how personal the race will become. As TPM’s Evan McMorris-Santoro reported from the ground in the Palmetto State, things have a tendency to get nasty down south, and this time around will likely be no different. South Carolina may be the point when Republican voters will actually decide if Romney’s Mormon faith will be an issue or not, and it’s very possible that other candidates will bring it up (although probably indirectly).
While Gingrich and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry are attacking Romney over his time as the CEO of Bain Capital at the moment, the state GOP’s religious ranks seem the likeliest place for an internal culture war as any. So if Gingrich, Perry or Santorum plan to stick around, they’ll need to cut into Romney’s lead — setting up a situation where campaigns may see both fertile ground for attacks and an opportunity to keep the race competitive through Florida and Nevada in the next three weeks.
Kyle is the Editor of TPM Media’s PollTracker. He graduated from Beloit College (WI) and began working in politics before getting an M.A. in magazine journalism from New York University, where he interned at TPM and the website of The New Yorker.