Dark Horse Victory

In one of the most startling turnarounds in presidential-primary history, Newt Gingrich scored a double-digit victory in South Carolina over Mitt Romney on Saturday.

When the week began, Romney was coming off an easy win in New Hampshire and had a comfortable-looking lead in every state poll. Every political forecaster in America saw him as the inevitable Republican nominee. But his worst debate performance of the campaign on Monday night was followed by a week of fumbles that gave the lie to his campaign’s legendary “discipline.” Romney, cast as a “vulture capitalist” and out-of-touch one-percenter—in a state with high unemployment—could not even muster a clear answer to questions about releasing his tax returns.

Gingrich, who finished fourth in both Iowa and New Hampshire, eased up on his denunciations of Romney’s record at Bain Capital—with the damage already done—and made the most of his local knowledge from next-door Georgia to deliver rabble-rousing performances at Monday and Thursday’s debates. A conveniently timed exit-endorsement of Texas Governor Rick Perry gave him a boost, as did a virtual endorsement from Sarah Palin, who encouraged South Carolinians to support the former house speaker and keep the campaign going. Meanwhile, Rick Santorum’s campaign foundered—in a state that should have been friendly to his social-conservative message—leaving Gingrich as the popular choice for anti-Romney conservatives. (Santorum finished third, well back of Romney, with Ron Paul coming in fourth, but vowed to continue his campaign.)

One other factor cannot be ignored: While super PAC spending in Iowa and New Hampshire was heavily anti-Gingrich and pro-Romney, it was split more evenly in South Carolina; for the first time, Romney was getting hit as hard as his leading challenger.

The controversy over Gingrich’s personal life, regenerated by ABC News’ interview with his second wife, does not appear to have hurt him. Exit polls showed that Gingrich led Romney among married women in South Carolina. 

In his runner-up speech, Romney gave a preview of the message he’ll take to Florida, which votes on January 31. He mentioned Gingrich only once by name, but likened him to President Obama. Obama, he noted, has never run a business or a state; similarly, “Our party can’t be led to victory by someone who has also never run a business and never run a state.” Obama is anti-business, he said, and, “We cannot defeat that president with a candidate who has joined in that very assault on free enterprise.” 

Romney also claimed that attacks on him are also attacks on regular Americans: “When my opponents attack success and free enterprise, they’re not only attacking me, they’re attacking every person who dreams of a better future. They’re attacking you.”

Gingrich, speaking more than an hour later, delivered a subdued, long-winded lecture in which he complimented his Republican opponents and trained his fire on President Obama and his fellow “elites” in the media and judiciary. The pundits, he said, have it wrong about his appeal: “It’s not that I’m a good debater, it’s that I articulate the deepest-felt values of the American people.” And those, he said, are not the values of Obama, a “food-stamp” president who’s “so weak that he makes Jimmy Carter look strong.”

When Gingrich finished, a country tune struck up: Brooks and Dunn’s “Only in America.” It was the right sentiment for a night no one would have foreseen just a few days before.

The next battleground is the swing state of Florida, where Romney again enters with a sizable lead in the polls, and with a well-funded organization that has been courting absentee and early votes for months. But after this week, no sane person would lay bets on another Romney cakewalk. And nobody will suggest that a Romney victory in Florida, if it comes, will make him the inevitable nominee.