Newt Gingrich's dramatic victory in the South Carolina primary, coupled with Mitt Romney's victory-turned-defeat in Iowa threw the Republican presidential nominating contest into disarray.
In three contests — Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — three different candidates have finished first. Rick Santorum wound up winning in Iowa and Romney took New Hampshire.
Now, with little more than a week until voting in Florida, the latest polling indicates Newt Gingrich is surging. In polls conducted last week, Romney enjoyed a double-digit lead over Gingrich in the Sunshine State, where Romney has an extensive campaign infrastructure in place. But following the South Carolina victory, Gingrich is seeing an 8 to 9 point lead on Romney.
"I think I'm the person best prepared to know how to get this country back on the right track. And I'm the person who's tough enough to take every single hit and keep coming," Gingrich said. "And I'll do the same thing as president."
In the Rasmussen Reports poll, for example, on Jan. 11, Romney enjoyed a 22-point lead on Gingrich. Just 11 days later, on Jan. 22, Gingrich had built a 9-point lead of his own — a 31-point swing.
All this leads some Republicans wondering when they'll have a nominee and if it won't be Romney, the candidate who as recently as last Wednesday seemed all but certain to wrap up the nomination on Saturday.
Kellyanne Conway, senior adviser to Newt Gingrich, said Gingrich's national profile, but local roots, having represented Georgia's sixth district in the U.S. Congress, helped him establish himself as the front-runner in the South.
"But if you look at the results in South Carolina, it was a true sweep," she said. "Demographically, geographically, If you look at the demography of the election, that's something we'd like to replicate across Florida."
Conway specifically cited success among the very conservative, the tea party backers, those looking for experience and women as groups Gingrich hopes to be able to take in Florida. She said it'll be a two-person race between Gingrich and Romney to win the nomination.
For his part, Romney's not backing down. Over the weekend, he tried to link Gingrich with President Barack Obama, saying the Republicans could not afford to have a candidate who, like Obama, has never run a country nor a state.
Anna Sale, political reporter for It’s a Free Country, said Romney is hoping to staunch some of the bleeding by dealing with issues that dogged him last week, including his failure to release his income tax returns. He's set to release his 2010 return and estimates on his 2011 return on Tuesday.
"Mitt Romney had a bad week, just independent of Newt Gingrich in South Carolina," Sale said. "He seemed out of touch."
Sale said the tilt between the two would be dirty and tough in the days ahead.
Florida, she said, would be about money and on-air appearances. In both of those demographics, Romney has commanding advantages.
"That's the challenge for Newt Gingrich. Aside from these debates, what's the campaign going to look like in Florida?" Sale said.