Newt Gingrich wins in South Carolina with fiery, controversial tone

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Columbia, S.C. – Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich easily won the primary here, pushing Mitt Romney from his perch as the frontrunner and setting up what might be a much longer GOP primary that was expected. Here’s a closer look at the results and what they mean.

1. Strong conservatives favored Gingrich

The former House Speaker sharply attacked the press and Romney over the last week. Polls show he easily won the majority of conservative, Tea Party and evangelical votes, all groups who had been resistant to Romney. The accusation by his ex-wife that Gingrich had asked for an open marriage appeared not to have hurt him that much among female voters, who also favored Gingrich, according to exit polls.

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2. Sharp, controversial language helped Gingrich and is likely to employed now by other candidates

Liberals have sharply condemned Gingrich’s claim that President Obama is the “food stamp president,” arguing it is race-baiting as well as being misleading in a time when millions of Americans want to work but can’t find jobs. Gingrich strongly defended this language in a debate on Monday, and in interviews Republicans here said they liked how Gingrich took on Fox’s Juan Williams and people who have collected unemployment benefits for a long time.

Expect the other candidates to increase their rhetoric against Obama and the media after watching how it helped Gingrich.

3. President Obama’s re-election chances are getting better

Romney had been trying to run a centrist, moderate campaign that ignored his rivals and other issues. He wanted to simply attack Obama on the economy, day after day. To win in Florida and beyond, Romney may now be forced to tout his more conservative positions, which will hurt him when he has to compete with Obama for swing voters if he makes it to the general election. If Gingrich won the nomination, it would allow the president to run against a highly controversial figure even among Republicans.

If Romney had won the first three states, he could have spent February to November attacking Obama. Now, he may be forced to spend all of February competing with Gingrich and Rick Santorum.

4. Romney may not be such a strong opponent for Obama

Polls show Romney to be near or ahead of Obama, both nationally and in key states. But the last two weeks have shown some huge vulnerabilities for Romney: his wealth and the low taxes he has paid on it, his inability to address that, and odd statements such as condemning the “politics of envy.”

Whether or not Romney wins the primary, he has provided Obama’s re-election operation with plenty of material to attack him in the general election.

Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr