Mitt Romney had little reason for concern heading into Saturday's primary in South Carolina. Sure, it looked as if Newt Gingrich would eke out a victory in the state, but Romney's status as the inevitable front-runner would remain unchallenged. The Florida primary at the end of the month would likely prove his knockout blow; he has held a massive lead in Florida polls—often topping 20 percent—and also has a resource advantage over Gingrich and a steady flow of support from popular establishment Republicans eyeballing a position in a Romney administration.
Those advantages suddenly crumbled away over the past 48 hours. Romney didn't just lose South Carolina, he was drubbed. Gingrich's 13-point victory was even larger than George W. Bush's margin over John McCain in 2000. His fellow Republicans, who once flocked to his campaign in order to get in early with the preordained nominee, are showing a moment of pause. It had been reported the previous week that former Florida Governor Jeb Bush would endorse Romney before his home state's primary; CNN even flashed out that news Saturday night. Now Bush is saying he'll stay neutral and termed both Romney and Gingrich as "credible" candidates in an interview with Bloomberg News.
New polls in the Sunshine State are just beginning to trickle out, but it looks as though Romney and Gingrich have completely flipped positions. Rasmussen's latest numbers put Gingrich ahead 41 percent to Romney's 32. When that same group looked at the state earlier this month, Romney dominated with a 41-19 lead. That poll likely isn't an outlier; Public Policy Polling hasn't released their new poll yet, but a tweet from last night indicates that Gingrich and Romney are tied at the moment.
Romney's supporters will say it is too little, too late. Florida is a massive state compared to Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. Town halls have little meaning in Florida, where big-budget TV ad buys flood the media market. Gingrich is most likely starting at a disadvantage in the vote count as well; about 225,000 Republicans have already voted, either through mailed-in absentee ballots or early voting, and Romney's muscular organization has been behind many of those votes. But more than 2 million turned out for Florida's GOP primary in 2008, so unless every single early vote has gone in Romney's favor, Gingrich will have plenty of room to close the gap.
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