, MIAMI, Jan 23 – Newt Gingrich set his sights Sunday on Florida after a stunning win in South Carolina’s presidential primary, while main Republican rival Mitt Romney bowed to pressure to release his tax returns.
Gingrich’s resounding victory on Saturday turned the topsy-turvy race on its head, and his political resurrection ensures a dramatic 2012 battle to be the Republican standard-bearer against President Barack Obama on November 6.
It shattered the aura of invincibility cloaking the former Massachusetts governor and turned Florida’s January 31 primary into a pivotal contest that could either confirm Gingrich’s momentum or restore Romney as the frontrunner.
Palm Beach County Republican Party chairman Sid Dinerstein said Florida was now the “make-or-break state” in the contest. “There is a very good chance therefore that after Florida the race is practically over,” he told AFP.
“It was not a great week for me,” a stung Romney conceded to Fox News Sunday after watching his substantial lead in South Carolina evaporate in a matter of days. Gingrich eventually won by 12.5 percentage points.
The campaign rhetoric grew increasingly bitter as the multimillionaire investor Romney and the pugnacious former House speaker locked horns.
Romney said there was “no question” he would go after his rival’s character more strongly than he has, implying he would call out Gingrich on his past ethics charges and his admitted marital affairs.
“Character is a big part of leadership, as is vision, sobriety, steadiness. These are attributes which I think people want to see in their candidate.”
Gingrich, who made the talk show rounds on Sunday after his victory, focused his attention on savaging the Democratic incumbent Obama, who he portrayed as a dangerously weak radical whose first term has been a “disaster.”
“Beating Barack Obama has to be the number one mission of the Republican Party,” Gingrich told NBC’s “Meet the Press,” adding that Republicans needed a candidate “strong enough and tough enough” to take on the president.
He posed himself as the insurgent street-fighter up against the establishment candidate Romney, and suggested it was best to air differences and weaknesses now, rather than in the run-up to November when Obama will use his “billion-dollar campaign” to cripple his opponent.
Gingrich’s win rekindled doubts about whether the relatively moderate Romney can rally the party’s conservative core, which views him with suspicion.
Former senator Rick Santorum, who finished a distant third in South Carolina, painted them both as unelectable. Romney versus Gingrich is “a choice between a moderate and an erratic conservative,” he told ABC.
Romney appeared to embrace Santorum’s attack on Gingrich, noting that “no one says to me that I’m someone that flies off the handle (or) that I’m erratic.”
But he has been criticized for appearing out of touch with average Americans.
After coming under pressure from Gingrich and others, Romney vowed to release his 2010 tax return on Tuesday, seeking to dispel doubts over what he might be hiding ahead of the all-important Florida vote.
But he insisted he would not shy away from his business record, saying he believed Americans – with respect for Congress at an all time low – would support private-sector success over someone who “spent 40 years in Washington as a congressman and a lobbyist.”
Gingrich was propelled into contention by some stellar debate performances, in particular a vicious counter-attack on the media when probed about an allegation by his ex-wife that he had once requested an open marriage.
But Florida is a far larger and more diverse state, with Romney’s vaunted campaign riches and well-oiled machine expected to give him the edge.
Organization is key here, and deep pockets are needed to air political advertising in Florida’s several media markets.
More than 220,000 voters have already cast early ballots, a state party official told AFP – which analysts say should favour Romney as many voted prior to Gingrich’s victory.
While Romney has a pronounced edge in Florida – polls have him ahead by an average of 18 percentage points – funds for Gingrich have soared.
His campaign will announce Sunday that it raised $1 million in eight hours, while a group of his supporters will launch an ad campaign Tuesday targeting Romney, The Washington Post reported.
Gingrich’s triumph in South Carolina followed a Santorum victory in Iowa and a Romney win in New Hampshire, dividing up the electoral spoils and bragging rights.
The four candidates, including veteran congressman Ron Paul who finished fourth in South Carolina, have a chance to impress Florida voters when they duel it out in a televised debate Monday night in Tampa.