The race is on

Indeed, a week ago, it appeared that Romney was cruising to a win in the Palmetto State, that he was about to go 3-for-3 in the first three contests, and that conservatives and Republicans were beginning to unite around him. But as it turns out, Romney decisively lost South Carolina, he’s now 1-and-2 in the first three contests (after discovering he lost Iowa, too), and conservatives and Republicans — according to last night’s exit polls — are nowhere close to rallying around him. And now we move to Florida, where Romney has the ability to bounce back or where Gingrich can further upend this contest. 

Sunday morning developments: Here are some of the breaking developments from the Sunday morning shows. On FOX, per NBC’s Garrett Haake, Romney said that he would release his 2010 tax returns on Tuesday (State of the Union day), as well as an estimate of his returns for 2011. On “Meet the Press,” Gingrich portrayed himself as the “Reagan populist conservative” in the race, and he cast Romney as the establishment candidate. “Do you want the establishment’s candidate … or someone who would fundamentally transform Washington?” he asked. And also on “Meet,” Romney surrogate Chris Christie said this about Gingrich: “I think Newt Gingrich has embarrassed the party… We all know the record. He was run out of his speakership.”

*** Conservatives break for Gingrich (and rebuke Romney): We’ve said this before and we’ll say it again: Romney is not going to be the de-facto nominee until he wins over the conservative base of his party (outside of New Hampshire). And last night in South Carolina, that base overwhelmingly broke for Gingrich. Among voters who described themselves as “very conservative” (who made up 36% of last night’s primary electorate) Gingrich beat Romney, 48%-19%. Among Tea Party supporters, Gingrich had a 20-point edge, 45%-25%. And among those who are evangelicals or born-again Christians (who made up 65% of the electorate) Gingrich won, 44%-22%. And just as importantly, these folks finally coalesced around one anti-Romney alternative — and that person was Gingrich. Also, don’t forget the role that religion played in South Carolina: Gingrich beat Romney, 46%-20%, among those who believe it matters that a candidate shares their religious views. Among those who don’t believe it matters that a candidate share their religious views, Romney actually beat Gingrich, 39%-32%

*** Romney’s problem: message, not mechanics: Ultimately, Romney’s problem right now is message — not mechanics. And as we saw in 2008, Romney doesn’t do the attack well. That’s what is going to make Monday night’s NBC debate so fascinating to watch.

*** The debates mattered — and so did the pro-Gingrich Super PAC: Two things, in particular, benefited Gingrich (and hurt Romney) in South Carolina. First, as our NBC/Marist poll showed and then the exit polls confirmed, the debates fueled his momentum. Per the exits, Gingrich beat Romney among those who said they made up their minds in the “last few days,” 43%-23%. Yet among those who said they made up their minds earlier than that, the score was even, 34%-34%.  But here’s a second factor that shouldn’t be overlooked. The pro-Gingrich Super PAC Winning Our Future (which spent $1.7 million in South Carolina) almost matched what the pro-Romney Restore Our Future spent ($2.5 million). Of course, Romney and his allies enjoyed a significant advertising advantage (a combined $4.4 million vs. $2.3 million for Gingrich and his allies). In Iowa, remember, Restore Our Future spent nearly $3 million hammering Gingrich, and there was very little response from Newt and his allies. That’s a big reason why Gingrich finished fourth in Iowa but won South Carolina.

*** Romney’s two advantages in Florida: But Romney has two advantages as we head into Florida on Jan. 31: money and early voting. Romney and the pro-Romney Super PAC Restore our Future have purchased more than $7 million of airtime in the Sunshine State. And how much advertising have Gingrich and his allies purchased? Zero. Also, per NBC’s Jamie Novogrod, more than 185,000 Republicans have already cast their votes via absentee ballot. And around 12,000 more Republicans have participated in early voting in the five counties where polling opened last week. What’s more, the snow birds are currently in Florida, and they’re more your Romney Republicans than Gingrich Republicans. So, despite his loss in South Carolina last night, Romney has to be the overwhelming favorite in Florida.

*** Romney’s disadvantage: Florida isn’t New Hampshire: But the GOP electorate in Florida has the potential to be unkind to Romney. Think South Carolina but with Cuban Americans in Miami thrown into the mix. According to the 2008 exit polls, 61% of Florida Republican primary voters considered themselves conservative (68% said they were conservative in South Carolina last night). And remember: Florida’s primary is closed, meaning that independents don’t get to vote. After all, it’s the same electorate that picked Rick Scott in 2010 over establishment favorite Bill McCollum. But the good news for Romney: Per the ’08 exits in Florida, only 39% were evangelicals or born-again Christians (compared with 65% who said they were evangelicals in South Carolina last night).

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