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Comeback for Newt or bump in the road for Mitt? SC votes to keep the race going

What do South Carolina’s Republican primary voters, who identify themselves as late decision-makers, conservatives, evangelicals, married women and independents, have in common? They all gave Newt Gingrich a plurality of their support in the all-important “first in the South primary,” according to the Fox News exit polls. 

The former House Speaker bested former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, considered the presumptive front-runner, on the all important "electability" question, which has been the hallmark of Romney’s message and appeal thus far. Newt scored big in the Palmetto State, gaining more votes than Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum combined.

As a fan of the Godfather series, I can’t help but think of Newt as the new Michael Corleone. Just when we thought he was out, South Carolina voters pulled him back into the volatile race for the Republican presidential nomination.

Now, we have the race many did not expect after Romney’s romp in New Hampshire. This will make the coming primaries and caucuses, especially in Florida, extremely consequential to the nomination process.

Newt’s big win was the political equivalent of a perfect storm, though he did have some built-in advantages. It was only last month that he was leading in polls in South Carolina and he is from neighboring Georgia.

Having left Iowa and New Hampshire badly wounded, Newt’s accomplishment tonight proves three important points that were easily lost in the cacophony of his demise and Romney’s inevitability. These are that Republican voters want this race to continue, they want their nominee to play offense and debates matter. 

The former Speaker earned a 16-point swing this week after two strong debate performances. Gingrich shined in these debates in his confrontations with debate moderators Juan Williams and John King. Both tried to use the former Speaker’s perceived weaknesses, his tendency to think out loud and his ex wives, to undermine him, with the unintended consequence of causing his finest moments in the campaign thus far.

The debates also showed that Gingrich, in contrast to Romney, knows how to play offense. This is the way most Republicans hope their nominee will conduct a campaign against President Obama. Couple that with Romney’s inability to capitalize on the misplaced attacks made by Gingrich and Rick Perry on his record in the private sector and his cumbersome handling of the issue of releasing his tax returns, and it was a perfect storm.

Newt’s “surge” (a word that will live in our common vernacular after this primary season) was also punctuated by the tacit endorsement of Tea Party and conservative opinion leader Sarah Palin. By encouraging South Carolina voters to support Newt to “keep the race going,” she gave many fence sitters, even those who liked Romney, a logical reason to fall on Gingrich’s side.

So while South Carolina successfully challenged political convention and advanced the primary season to the ballot boxes of Florida, it is unclear what it really means beyond tonight.

While national polls show Gingrich shrinking the gap, Mitt Romney still holds a double-digit lead. Romney’s wide margin in Florida seems to have suffered some impact from the dynamics in South Carolina, but he maintains a healthy advantage and has dominated the airwaves in a state with over ten media markets. 

In short, unless Gingrich’s win tonight leads to meaningful fundraising support, Florida may not be as attainable as more conservative friendly and less media costly South Carolina.

For his part, Romney leaves this past week and tonight’s primary shellacking with a major takeaway; ditch the rigid playbook of defensive tactics and maneuvers. His robust war chest must be accompanied with proof that he can be the right prizefighter to take on President Obama. He has time, organization and resources on his side, and in spite of tonight’s results, remains in a strong position to ultimately prevail well before the convention.

Newt’s appeal offers Republican primary voters the combination of both the fighter and fixer that they have desperately been seeking. 

Tonight the future remains unclear. For Gingrich, this could the start of a genuine comeback, or for Romney, simply a bump in the road to the nomination.

Tony Sayegh is a Republican Campaign Consultant, Political Analyst and National Correspondent for Talk Radio News Service. He appears regularly on FOX NEWS, FOX Business and weekly on FOXNEWS.COM. You can e-mail Tony at tony4ny@yahoo.com.

Tony Sayegh is a Republican Strategist, National Political Correspondent for Talk Radio News Service and a Fox News contributor.  You can follow him on Twitter @tony4ny and e-mail him at tony4ny@yahoo.com