(Reuters) - Newt Gingrich mobilized the Tea Party vote to help him win the South Carolina Republican presidential primary but he may struggle to repeat that success as he moves into Florida and other states.
Supporters of the conservative Tea Party movement were crucial to Gingrich’s victory in Saturday’s primary to be the Republican nominee facing President Barack Obama in November’s election, exit poll data from South Carolina showed.
Almost two-thirds of Republican voters said they backed the Tea Party, a three-year-old grassroots movement focused on smaller government and fiscal reform. Among Tea Party supporters in the South Carolina primary, Gingrich had a lead over Mitt Romney of 20 percentage points.
The Gingrich campaign tapped into a network of experienced activists left over from the 2010 midterm elections, when the Tea Party helped to elect four new congressmen in the state.
Tea Party backers, many of whom had originally supported Michele Bachmann or former pizza magnate Herman Cain before they dropped out of the 2012 race, worked the phones and bombarded social media in the final days of the South Carolina race.
But it is not clear whether the Tea Party movement will coalesce around Gingrich in other states and whether it will make enough of a difference in less conservative states.
University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato said all states have different demographics and Tea Party configurations, so it is hard to predict.
“If Gingrich is to have a chance of winning the nomination, he needs to convince Tea Party groups across the states to back him almost unanimously,” he said. “Even that is not enough to win, but it is a prerequisite for him to do well.”
Florida, which holds the next primary on Jan 31., is a less conservative state than South Carolina and requires big money for TV advertising, factors which at the moment favor Romney.
In South Carolina, the Gingrich campaign was also helped by floundering debate performances by Romney, who seemed unprepared for questions about his tax returns.
The former Massachusetts governor is now due to release his tax details on Tuesday, and presumably is sharpening up his debating skills ahead of two televised encounters in Florida this week.
Gingrich pulled off a strategic coup by wooing a Tea Party meeting in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina in mid-January.
He received a rock-star reception and called upon the several hundred attendees to “unify behind one candidate” to beat Romney.
“Gingrich’s attendance at the convention was very important,” Myrtle Beach Tea Party chairman Joe Dugan said. “It meant a lot to the Tea Party that he showed up.”
The local Tea Party endorsed Gingrich and many of its members volunteered for his campaign. The only other candidate at the convention was Rick Santorum.
Spartanburg Tea Party organizer Karen Martin was swayed by Gingrich, despite many questions over his political record, his work as a lobbyist and his three marriages.
“For a long time we had hoped someone better would enter the race,” said Martin, who decided she would vote for Gingrich after his performance in a Jan 16 debate in Myrtle Beach. “But we realized that was not going to happen.”
Reuters interviewed about 40 attendees at the convention, finding around two-thirds for Gingrich. There were also two small, distinct contingents backing Santorum and libertarian favorite Texas Representative Ron Paul.
South Carolina activists like Allen Olson were early converts to the Gingrich campaign.
He resigned in September as chairman of the Columbia Tea Party - which does not back specific candidates - to endorse Gingrich, whom he admires for his commitment to the principles of Strong America Now, a group devoted to eliminating government waste using corporate cost-cutting techniques.
Olson said the Gingrich campaign first made contact with his group early last year. He and other activists had been hearing from Gingrich’s advocacy and fundraising group American Solutions since the early days of the Tea Party in 2009.
“They weren’t necessarily lobbying us for our support last year,” Olson said. “They were just trying to get feedback from us on what about their campaign was working and what was not.”
Adam Waldeck, director of Gingrich’s campaign in South Carolina, confirmed Olson’s account.
“We always saw the Tea Party as natural allies,” he said, adding that activists across the state had volunteered for Gingrich’s campaign.
In recent weeks Gail McCauley, an insurance agent and member of the Greenville Tea Party, worked the phones in the evening at Gingrich’s local campaign office.
McCauley, said her work for Gingrich became much easier after the Republican presidential debate on Thursday - where Gingrich rounded on moderator CNN’s John King for asking about charges from his ex-wife Marianne that he sought an “open marriage” while having an affair.
“People just eat that sort of thing up down here,” she said.
An independent contractor, McCauley said that on Friday she received emails from customers saying that last debate had helped make up their minds that Gingrich was better suited to take the fight to Obama than Romney.
“People want someone who can smack down Obama and smack down the media,” she said. “People here feel Newt is that person.”
Additional reporting by Jim Gaines and Alina Selyukh; editing by Alistair Bell and Cynthia Osterman