Newt’s National Post-Debate “Surge”: Does It Matter in South Carolina?

A day after Monday’s Republican debate, the general consensus within the punditocracy is that Newt was the clear winner.  The sentiment was captured in this post-debate analysis by the Washington Post’s Dan Balz: “The 16th debate of the GOP primary campaign produced one of the strongest performances in weeks by the struggling Gingrich. In contrast, through much of the night, Romney, the clear front-runner and, to many Republicans, the inevitable nominee, seemed either defensive or evasive. He redeemed himself in the final minutes, but he must be happy that factors beyond the exchanges will determine the outcome of the race.”

At least one poll seems to support this collective judgment; in the first post-debate poll I’ve seen, Rasmussen finds that Newt has jumped nationally by 11% in the last two weeks to close within three, 30-27% of Romney.  I’m guessing most of that climb came after Monday night. Not surprisingly, Newt went on the air yesterday in South Carolina with a new advertisement highlighting the most memorable point in the debate: the exchange between Gingrich and Juan Williams regarding food stamps, Obama and jobs – an exchange that brought the partisan crowd to their feet in a genuine red meat moment.  (Notice the cool background music!)

Last night on Fox, meanwhile, everybody’s favorite moosemeister, Sarah Palin came as close to endorsing Newt as one can by arguing that Tea Partiers should probably support him in South Carolina in order to extend the Republican race so that each candidate is fully vetted.

The question is: does any of this make any difference to the outcome in South Carolina?  And, given the prevailing media narrative (one supported by many political scientists) that has this race a lock for Romney, does South Carolina’s outcome even matter?  For what it’s worth, two more South Carolina polls were released yesterday – both in the field before Monday’s debate – and both show Romney comfortably ahead of the second-place Gingrich by about 30-20%.  But – keeping the Rasmussen poll in mind – can an impressive debate performance keyed to a well-funded advertising campaign cut into Romney’s lead in South Carolina? Earlier in the fall, during the invisible primary,  Gingrich rode a series of strong debate performances to the top of the polls, only to come crashing down as the other candidates’ exposed his record in a series of campaign ads.  But Gingrich’s debate-based polling boost took place when potential voters were just beginning to pay attention to the race.  Now, after Iowa and New Hampshire, information levels are higher, the media narrative has changed in a way that may make it less susceptible to alteration, and it’s not clear that the 16th debate will have nearly the impact of the earlier ones.

Hoping to build on the positive reviews of his debate performance, yesterday Gingrich called on his Republican opponents Rick Santorum and Rick Perry to clear the field so that the conservative vote won’t be splintered, thus allowing Romney to get the nomination.  But this plea will almost surely fall on deaf ears, particularly since it appears, if media reports are to be believed, that Iowa is set to certify its caucus results showing that Santorum, and not Romney, was the winner.  (If true, so much for the much ballyhooed media drumbeat that Romney is the first non-incumbent to ever win both Iowa and New Hampshire.)  That would mean that Santorum beat Gingrich in both Iowa and New Hampshire – hardly grounds for dropping out now in deference to Newt.

It’s unclear to me whether the Rasmussen national poll is anything more than an ephemeral bump in Gingrich’s standing based on the glowing reviews of his debate performance, and what significance it has for the South Carolina race.  In public comments, Gingrich has equivocated regarding whether he needs to win in South Carolina in order to stay in the race.  My guess is that if Romney wins with about 30% of the vote, but Gingrich is a close second, the Newtster will stay in.

All this suggests that Thursday’s debate, to be televised by CNN, looms even larger in terms of its potential impact on South Carolina’s Saturday primary.   Can Newt reprise Monday’s stellar performance?  Will Paul rebound from perhaps his worst debate so far?  Will Romney feel pressure to push back more aggressively against Newt?  What about the two Ricks – will we see Angry and Dopey, or Happy and Less Dopey (I’m joking, Perry supporters!)?  Questions, questions….alas, I have no answers.  We will all have to wait at least another day.

One thing I do know: Mitt’s team is not going to sit around to find out if this surge is real.  Expect a hard-hitting anti-Newt advertising spot to begin airing in South Carolina in the next three days.

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