Newt Gingrich wins South Carolina. Can he do the same in Florida?

Mitt Romney, recently seen as the GOP establishment candidate with an aura of “electability” about him, had to settle for second place. Now it's on to Florida and two important debates.

In a remarkable turn-around from his lackluster performance in the first two presidential nominating contests, Newt Gingrich won a very clear victory in South Carolina Saturday evening.

Mitt Romney, until very recently seen as the Republican establishment candidate with an aura of “electability” (if not “inevitably”) about him, had to settle for second place. In the end, it was the best he could expect after a week in which he stumbled in debates and slid rapidly downward in the polls.

The results so far this primary season – Rick Santorum winning Iowa, Mitt Romney taking New Hampshire, and Newt Gingrich surging to win South Carolina – indicate what could be a wide-open race, at least for the next few contests. It’s the first time in modern GOP primary history that three different candidates won those three states.

RECOMMENDED: Newt Gingrich: 8 of the GOP idea man's more unusual ideas

"We are now three contests into a long primary season," Romney said in what was essentially a concession speech in which he congratulated Gingrich for the former House speaker’s first-place victory Saturday, adding in understatement: "This race is getting to be even more interesting."

With 95 percent of all precincts tallied, Gingrich was projected to finish with 40 percent, Romney 27 percent, Santorum 17 percent, and Ron Paul 13 percent.

The next primary will be held in Florida just 10 days from now (Jan. 31). Before that, there’ll be two GOP debates in the Sunshine State (next Monday and Thursday). Given the results in South Carolina, those closely-watched and analyzed events could be crucial to Romney’s political future.

Speaking to supporters less than an hour after the polls closed, Romney gave his standard stump speech – references to “a battle for the soul of America” and “a shining city on a hill” – mainly aimed at Barack Obama.

But he also took a few jabs at Gingrich, calling his opponent’s criticisms of Romney’s record in running an investment firm “an assault on free enterprise” and insisting that “our candidate can’t be someone who never ran a business and never ran a state.”

For his part, Gingrich spoke (longer than any of the others) like the front-runner he now is.

He said (brief) nice things about each of his three Republican rivals, then pivoted to a sharp critique of “the elites of New York and Washington,” especially President Obama.

As he’s done many times from the stump, Gingrich challenged Obama to seven 3-hour debates, highlighting the difference between “American exceptionalism and the radicalism of Saul Alinsky.”

Both Romney and Gingrich carry heavy baggage to Florida.

Romney needs to address questions about his wealth, investments, and tax returns. Gingrich has issues involving marital infidelities, the circumstances under which he was forced out as House speaker under an ethical cloud, and his record as a well-paid Washington insider for many years since then.

The Romney campaign can be expected to hit Gingrich on ethical issues.

What Gingrich learned this past week – to his advantage – is that forcefulness in debate and a willingness to throw sharp elbows at the “destructive, vicious, negative nature” of the news media go down very well with active Republicans looking for the best man to take on an incumbent president known for his debating skills as well.

Many Republicans, it seems, still view Romney as suspect because of his alleged changeability on some key issues like abortion and health care and even his Mormon religion. Exit polls in South Carolina showed most tea party supporters going for Gingrich.

That Gingrich is a divisive figure in politics – even within his own party, as criticisms from fellow Republicans he served with in the House show – is clearly evident.

Take a look at the favorable/unfavorable ratings for Obama, Romney, and Gingrich. Here are the numbers from three recent polls, as noted by Conn Carroll of the conservative Washington Examiner:

Fox News Obama, fav/unfav, 51-46 percent, +5 Romney, fav/unfav, 45-38 percent, +7 Gingrich, fav/unfav, 27-56 percent, -29

CBS/NYT Obama, fav/unfav, 38-45 percent, -7 Romney, fav/unfav, 21-35 percent, -14 Gingrich, fav/unfav, 17-49 percent, -32

PPP Obama, app/dis, 47-50 percent, -3 Romney, fav/unfav, 35-53 percent, -18 Gingrich, fav/unfav, 26-60 percent, -34

“Those are remarkably high numbers for someone who could be the nominee,” Republican campaign strategist Steve Schmidt said on MSNBC.

In his “Beltway Confidential” blog, Mr. Carroll puts it more directly: “America does not love Romney, but boy do they hate Newt.”

But that certainly was not the case in South Carolina, a very red state where solid conservatism and a willingness to do political combat are highly valued among active Republicans.

Now it’s on to Florida for the next Republican primary election, to be preceded by two very important debates.

“We could have a blockbuster fight over the next five weeks,” predicts GOP strategist Schmidt.

RECOMMENDED: Newt Gingrich: 8 of the GOP idea man's more unusual ideas