When this week began, the primary process appeared well on its way to becoming an uneventful coronation of Mitt Romney. He had won Iowa (barely, or so we thought), he steamrolled through New Hampshire, and polls as recently as Monday showed him leading Newt Gingrich by double digits in South Carolina. And yet, here we are a couple of game-changing debates later, and the cable networks, based on apparently unambiguous exit polling, were able to call South Carolina for Gingrich as soon as voting ended at 7 p.m.
It'll still be a few hours until we find out just how much of a shellacking he delivered to Romney today, and, consequently, how much momentum he can expect going into the Florida primary ten days from now. But this much is clear: Just as Sarah Palin — and, apparently, lots of South Carolina voters — hoped would happen, the Romney coronation has been canceled. Romney is still the favorite to win the nomination — he boasts a huge advantage in money, organization, and Establishment support — but it won't be easy.
Update: In his concession speech just now, Romney acknowledged the new reality of a "long primary season,” and admitted that his campaign still has "a long way to go.” And after some standard attacks on President Obama — how he's trying to destroy America and all we hold dear, etc. — Romney transitioned to a preview of his line of attack on Gingrich going into Florida. Gingrich, Romney claimed, has joined Obama's "assault on free enterprise" — referring, we presume, to Gingrich's criticisms of Romney's tenure at Bain. Romney vowed to defend capitalism, prosperity, and free markets from both Obama and Gingrich, two people who obviously hate those things. “The Republican Party doesn’t demonize prosperity," Romney declared. "We celebrate success in our party.”
Update II: With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Gingrich has 40.3 percent of the vote, compared to 27.9 percent for Romney, 17 percent for Rick Santorum, and 13 percent for Ron Paul.
Update III: Newt Gingrich saved all his condescending vitriol for President Obama tonight. In his South Carolina victory speech, he praised Rick Santorum's support for the manufacturing industry and his hawkishness on Iran, applauded Ron Paul for his criticism of the Federal Reserve, and even went out of his way to compliment Mitt Romney's business career. Then he grabbed a big bag of raw, red meat and tossed it into the crowd — literally. Okay, not literally. Figuratively. Gingrich said that Obama, metaphorically, couldn't play tic-tac-toe, much less checkers or chess. He joked that Obama was "so weak that he makes Jimmy Carter look strong." He mocked Obama for bowing to the King of Saudi Arabia. He called Obama "a danger to this country." He compared Obama to Saul Alinsky — you know, that guy everyone is familiar with — not once, not twice, but three times. So, no, Gingrich is not toning it down. And why would he? Dance with the tone that brung ya.
Update IV: As noticed by Hunter Walker, one of the two counties in South Carolina won by Mitt Romney is called Richland.
Update V: Something to keep in mind for Florida: While Gingrich is bound to see a bounce from South Carolina, about 184,000 votes out of an expected 2 million or so had already been cast in Florida as of yesterday, in the form of absentee ballots and early voting. That's good news for Romney, who's been leading the polls there.