After his sweeping win in South Carolina, Newt Gingrich yesterday set his sights on a victory in Florida's primary next week that would place him in pole position to secure the Republican nomination to face President Barack Obama in November.
The former Speaker's triumph in the season's first primary in the south sealed a comeback remarkable even by his own wildly fluctuating political history. Having trailed long-acknowledged front-runner Mitt Romney by double digits only days before the vote, he trounced his rival by 40 per cent to 28 per cent.
On the Sunday talk shows the former Speaker stepped up his assault on Mr Romney, saying he had won because voters understood his core conservative beliefs, while his opponent lacked authenticity, and had been "bouncing around trying to find a message... trying to find a version of Romney that would work". "You end up with a guy who is a very good salesman, who very much wants to sell, but has a very weak product," Mr Gingrich told CBS News, insisting that he alone had the big ideas required to "go toe to toe" with Mr Obama in November.
Though South Carolina, with its high proportion of evangelical and strongly conservative voters, was never going to be friendly terrain for a former governor of Massachusetts, the Romney camp has been shaken by the scale of the loss.
The dynamic of the race has been transformed. A week ago, Mr Romney seemed poised to reel off a third straight primary win that would have all but sealed the nomination. Now, after Iowa was awarded to Mr Santorum, he has won just one of the three, and needs a victory in Florida to regain his footing.
As a first step, his campaign announced that after weeks of damaging prevarication (that drew boos at a candidates' debate last week), Mr Romney would tomorrow release his tax returns for 2010, as well as an estimate of his tax bill for last year.
At the same time his supporters turned up the heat on Mr Gingrich, focussing on the ethical and personal controversies that many senior Republicans believe make him unelectable. "Newt Gingrich has embarrassed the party, over time," Chris Christie, the Governor of New Jersey said yesterday. "Whether he will do it again in the future, I don't know. But Governor Romney never has."
Whatever else, South Carolina has turned the Republican contest into a two-horse race. Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, had hoped that his belated win in Iowa and his strong Christian conservative credentials would have enabled him to mount a strong challenge in the state.
But he finished a disappointing third with 17 per cent, ahead only of the libertarian Texas congressman Ron Paul, and will come under strong pressure from Mr Gingrich to leave conservatives with a single standard-bearer. But Mr Santorum vows a strong campaign in Florida and beyond – in the hope that the ever-combustible Mr Gingrich will self-destruct. But the less well-financed Mr Santorum will be at a disadvantage in Florida, with its expensive media markets.
Mr Romney's challenge is to show, especially in the two Florida debates this week, that he has the required fire in his belly. "I have emotion and passion. I'm going to show the passion that I have when it comes naturally," he told Fox News. But he was not "angry" like Mr Gingrich. "I'm not someone who is angry and mad, but I am very upset at the direction of this country."