Really GOP? Newt Gingrich As Your Presidential Nominee?

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich wins the South Carolina primary handily, positioning himself as the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney.

It wasn’t really a surprise. After all, Newt Gingrich hit it out of the park in the opening minutes of CNN’s debate when he attacked moderator John King for bringing up his ex-wife’s “open marriage” claim. Following that incredible moment, it seemed like Newt had the big "mo" – momentum – going into the first GOP presidential primary in the south. Plus, Newt’s great debate was matched by Mitt Romney’s poor performance and truly his worst week ever.

First, we learned the former Massachusetts governor has a 15 percent tax rate because most of his income comes from investments (yes, that’s a lot lower than ours!). Then, came word he reportedly has off-shore investments in the Cayman Islands. How do you spell problem for a candidate trying to position himself as the man who can improve the economy for middle class families? And finally, there is that ongoing tax return problem. Mitt originally refused to release them, but just announced that he'll release his 2010 and estimated 2011 returns on Tuesday.

Still, Newt Gingrich as the possible GOP nominee? I know there are still plenty of contests ahead but the narrative last week was that Romney was the likely nominee. That narrative has now been blown out of the water. I write this not with a political position but as a political observer and someone who has enjoyed covering politics for a good chunk of my career.

Election 2012 will be decided by women, namely the women who voted for President Obama in 2008 but who are undecided now and who are comfortable voting for either party. I think of one of our iVoices, who won’t be named here, who is in this exact position.  Would she vote for Newt Gingrich, a man whose current national unfavorability rating is 60%, according to some reports, and a man who was having an affair while he went after former President Clinton for his personal failings during the Lewinsky scandal?

Anything is possible in this impossible to predict race, which is apparently the first time in history that different candidates have won Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.  So what’s ahead? Here’s what you should be looking for over the next few weeks:

Mitt Romney will continue to make the electability argument – that he has a better chance of defeating President Obama than Newt Gingrich. He’s not demonstrated himself to be the best communicator, especially at the debates. Can he sharpen his message? He’ll certainly sharpen the attack, going after Gingrich for his ethics violations as House Speaker.

Up then Down
The talk throughout the South Carolina primary coverage is that Newt Gingrich doesn’t handle success well. True point. Remember when Gingrich was the frontrunner in the polls back in December. His lead didn’t last long after he came under attack. We’ll see if he can hold the lead this time.

Let them Debate!
Grab your popcorn and clear your schedule Monday night for NBC News’ debate, set to begin at 9:00pm ET. This is definitely going to be must-see-TV. With exit polls showing that a massive number of undecided South Carolinians watched the debates, Romney knows Floridians will be watching and he can’t afford to get his clock cleaned – again. 

The next contest is Tuesday, January 31st in Florida and its importance cannot be overstated. If Gingrich wins again, he will take frontrunner status. If Romney wins, he takes the momentum and his already established infrastructure for the national primary campaign that culminates on Super Tuesday, March 6th, when 10 states hold primaries and caucuses.

The Others
The two other candidates, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and Congressman Ron Paul, who placed third and fourth respectively, don’t show any signs of getting out of the race. Santorum, with his praise of Newt in his South Carolina speech and his claim that he's the candidate fighting for the working man, may be positioning himself as a vice presidential candidate for Gingrich or Romney. Ron Paul doesn’t appear to have any chance of winning the nomination but has galvanized a movement and plans to continue the fight nationwide.

Kelly Wallace is Chief Correspondent of iVillage. She’s a former White House Correspondent and political correspondent for CNN, who was on the campaign bus during the 2004 presidential election. Follow Kelly on Twitter (@kellywallacetv).

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