Republican road show moves to Florida
Romney taking the gloves off after stunning Gingrich upset
The topsy-turvy race for the Republican presidential nomination is moving to Florida, where Newt Gingrich hopes to capitalize on his double-digit upset victory in South Carolina over Mitt Romney.
After weeks of trying to stay above the fray, the Romney camp says their candidate will be taking a more aggressive tone in their attacks on the resurgent Gingrich.
President Barack Obama, while still popular personally, is battling weak approval ratings for his leadership in pulling the U.S. economy out of the ravages of the 2007-2009 Great Recession. About 8.5 per cent of American workers remain unemployed, millions have lost homes to mortgage foreclosures and the economy, while improving in recent months, remains wobbly.
Gingrich said he owes his stunning victory on Saturday to proving that he speaks the political language of deeply conservative voters. He also won points for his attacks on Romney's moderate past on social issues including abortion, gay rights and health-care reform.
And despite the heavy influence of evangelical Christians in South Carolina, that powerful voting block chose to overlook Gingrich's history: three marriages, admitted infidelities and an ethics reprimand when he was the speaker of the House of Representatives in the mid-1990s.
Romney turns to Florida at what is possibly the most critical moment of his campaign. He has suffered two weeks of sustained attacks from his opponents and a series of self-inflicted errors that erased any notion that he would be able to lock up the nomination quickly by winning the state's Jan. 31 primary.
An indication of how deeply Romney has been shaken was his announcement Sunday that he would release his income tax records for 2010 and estimates for 2011 on Tuesday. For weeks, the multimillionaire had been reluctant to let voters see his tax filings, which would not only show how much he earns, but that he likely pays a lower tax rate than ordinary wage earners because much of his income is derived from capital gains on investments.
Romney was an easy winner in the New Hampshire primary earlier in the month. Before that, he was a close runner-up behind former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum in the leadoff Iowa caucuses where the vote count was so confused Romney was originally announced the victor.
After seeing a double-digit lead turn into a double-digit defeat in South Carolina, Romney acknowledged that his battle with Gingrich is likely to stretch out into the spring if not longer.
"I'm looking forward to a long campaign," Romney said. "We are selecting the president of the United States — someone who is going to face ups and downs and real challenges — and I hope that through this process, I can demonstrate that I can take a setback and come back strong."
Despite his loss in South Carolina, Romney remains the contender with the largest and best-funded organization to sustain an extended campaign. Romney and a group that supports him have already spent $7 million US airing ads in Florida heading into Monday night's televised debate among the four remaining candidates.
Focus on character
Behind the scenes, aides indicated that Romney would focus on Gingrich's character to distinguish himself, the father of five who has been married to the same woman for 42 years, from his thrice-married rival. And the aides argued that the results in South Carolina don't indicate Republican primary voters everywhere are willing to overlook Gingrich's past.
Gingrich's second wife, Marianne, told ABC News in an interview aired Thursday that the former speaker asked her for an open marriage so he could continue having an affair with the House staffer who is now his third wife.
But the emboldened Gingrich said on Sunday that his hardline conservative views and confrontational style will be needed to stand up to Obama's "billion-dollar war chest," adding only he could go "toe to toe" with the president.
With votes counted from all of South Carolina's precincts, Gingrich had 40 per cent to Romney's 28 per cent. Santorum won 17 per cent to Texas congressman Ron Paul's 13 per cent.
Gingrich won at least 23 of the 25 delegates at stake. The other two have yet to be allocated. Fifty delegates will be at stake in Florida, a contest that Romney can ill afford to lose.
Santorum, Paul fading
Both Santorum and Paul seem out of the running for the nomination. To preserve his limited campaign treasury, Paul is bypassing Florida to focus on Nevada and other states where he is more likely to collect delegates to the Republican national nominating convention in late August.
Romney supporters said Gingrich's nomination would be a disaster for the party, citing his rocky tenure leading House Republicans in the 1990s that resulted in allegations of ethics violations.
"I think Newt Gingrich has embarrassed the party, over time," said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. "Whether he will do it again in the future, I don't know. But Gov. Romney never has."
Romney has run his campaign under the banner of his success as a venture capitalist and as a Washington outsider. While he remains the favourite of Republican establishment figures such as Christie, the former Massachusetts governor's wealth, moderate political past and patrician bearing do not play well in an increasingly conservative party.