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Gingrich Took South Carolina! Democrats Rejoice!

Further deviding the conservative base, the most plausible candidate has been overshadowed by a political landmine.

Democrats rejoice, Newt Gingrich has won handily in South Carolina and will likely enjoy momentum into other early voting states. Somehow, don’t ask me how, Newt Gingrich has rallied the strident hard-right conservatives and is convinced that their platform could make for a credible run in the general election. The man that is as Washington Insider as any other, has taken one media black-eye after another for his anti-conservative and out-of-touch proclamations (“right-wing social engineering”?) and almost beached his campaign on a n early summer Mediterannean cruise, has somehow adopted the limited-government “maverick”-loving Tea Party. The result? A conservative base that is thinly straddling an enormous divide, and a plausible candidate for the general election being overshadowed by a self-obsessed adulterer and political landmine.

I may be overstating that last bit, but it’s clear that Gingrich’s re-resurgence (remember that other week?) will serve to make Romney’s previously imminent nomination a tougher contest than he had hoped. Gingrich, who has lead one of the most aggressively negative campaigns in any Republican primary against Romney, seems to be reaping the awards of that negativity. His victory is made more worrisome to the Romney campaign in that South Carolina has successfully picked the GOP nominee since 1980, perhaps not predictive of the ultimate nomination but certainly a precedent. That precedent can be a powerful talking point in debates, ads, and speeches going forward.

Furthermore, South Carolinians chose Gingrich by an impressive 12 points over Romney despite the fact that their (equally belligerent) governor Nickie Haley formally endorsed Mitt Romney weeks beforehand, and even stumped for the guy. It seems popular support may be behind Newt, even if party establishment favors Mitt.

As if to add insult to injury, an Iowa recount of the early January Caucus placed Santorum ahead of Romney by 32 votes; a contest Romney was thought to have won by a slim 8 votes. The result? Romney has gone from GOP super-favorite and nominee-inevitable to riding a dead heat with social conservative Rick Santorum (who has been conspicuously quiet in South Carolina) and quasi-conservative timebomb Newt Gingrich.

If one thing is to be learned from this GOP primary season it will be to see who is actually more influential in the Republican Party; a hardline conservative base or the Republican establishment? In any case, the epic split within the Party is not likely to be nicely sewn up once the general election rolls around. Should Gingrich enjoy the nomination, Obama’s campaign may be run from his Presidential sofa as he watches the former Speaker self-destruct all the way to November.