Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012 | 6:45 p.m.
Remember Wednesday? When Mitt Romney was poised to win South Carolina, becoming the first non-incumbent Republican in history to take every early GOP presidential contest in a sweep that would render Nevada all but moot by the time the caucuses swung out West?
What a difference just a few days makes.
Newt Gingrich’s South Carolina win Saturday — combined with the revelation earlier this week that Rick Santorum actually won Iowa — has split the spoils of this GOP nominating contest so fully that there’s no way the early states, even once Florida votes, will have unequivocally determined a front-runner, putting Nevada back in position of influence in picking a presidential candidate.
"This speaks volumes for Nevada's relevance. ... No matter who takes Florida, Nevada is vital," Nevada GOP chairwoman Amy Tarkanian said Saturday night. "I'm very excited."
Gingrich staged a decisive victory in South Carolina’s Republican presidential primary Saturday after managing to overcome a double-digit point deficit in just a few days. But what’s more significant is how he did it: by coalescing the conservative Republican vote.
The search for a true blue conservative (who bleeds red, of course) has made the Republican presidential selection extremely volatile this cycle: Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Gingrich and Santorum have all taken turns being the top conservative of choice but as a group splintered the vote too fully to overtake Romney’s solid core of supporters.
Over the course of the GOP primary contests, the field of non-Romney conservative candidates has winnowed from five to two: only Gingrich and Santorum remain.
But though Santorum was the one coming into South Carolina with a win under his belt, the Palmetto State and its above-average complement of religious conservatives anointed Gingrich their pick.
Perry endorsed Gingrich as he was bowing out of the race Thursday. Crowds gave him standing ovations at a debate later Thursday night. And Gingrich didn’t just squeak out a win: he trounced Romney by double digits, leading him by a wide margin among both those voters who self-identified as “very conservative” and those who described themselves as more middle of the road conservatives, according to exit polling — which could spell trouble for Romney in Florida.
"Make no mistake about it, this was a landslide victory!" Gingrich's South Carolina chair Billy Wilkins said to a crowd of Gingrich supporters. "The political equivalent of a tsunami."
"With your help, we are now moving onto Florida and beyond," Gingrich added to the crowd of supporters, who greeted him with cheers of, "Newt can win!"
It all depends on how far Gingrich can carry this newfound momentum — and how far it keeps him going determines what sort of stamp Nevada will put on the Republican nominating process in the end.
Florida isn’t as conservative as South Carolina, nor is Gingrich as well organized as Romney is in the land of sunshine and oranges.
The available numbers also suggest Romney is doing fine in Florida. The most recent CNN/Time poll, published Wednesday, put his share of the vote at 43 percent, with Gingrich at only 18 percent. But that same poll gave Santorum 19 percent of the vote — a split between conservatives that’s likely flipped given the events of the last few days.
Though Santorum has made no motion to signal he’ll drop out, if Gingrich can coalesce the conservative vote in Florida as he did in South Carolina, it’s enough to present a serious challenge to Romney’s considerable lead.
Floridians began heading to the polls Saturday for an early voting period; final votes in the state come Jan. 31, just four days before Nevada holds its caucuses on Feb. 4.
If Florida selects Romney, he’ll still need a strong win in Nevada — where he’s supposed to win anyway, given his immense popularity in 2008 — to solidify his front-runner status and launch him across the rest of the West before the bulk of Super Tuesday states vote in early March.
But if Gingrich wins Florida — or comes close — he will look to shake things up further in Nevada, where he’s already committed to begin campaigning by Feb. 2, and where the gap between himself and Romney, compared to other states, has been awfully small.
There has been no polling in Nevada since mid-December. But the last poll put Romney just four points ahead of Newt Gingrich, 33 percent to 29 percent. Gingrich managed to make up a much larger deficit than that Saturday — and he didn’t have the sort of deep-pocketed friends in South Carolina he does in Nevada.
Gingrich’s most devoted supporter in Nevada is Sheldon Adelson, chairman and chief executive officer of the Las Vegas Sands Corp. Adelson has supported Gingrich and Winning the Future, the political action committee that backs the former Speaker, generously during this campaign cycle, and is a very influential voice in Nevada Republican politics.
South Carolina has a saying that it picks presidents. Nevada’s Republican electorate may look nothing like South Carolina’s, but given the way things are going this election season, it’s poised to determine whether or not the adage is true.