CHARLESTON, S.C.—Thursday night’s four-top GOP debate made it official: The South Carolina primary has become a referendum on Newt Gingrich. Just 10 days after he was left in a dustbin labeled “Yesterday’s Man” after dismal finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, Gingrich has confounded the experts yet again. The oft-derided and consistently under-estimated House speaker has now bested Jesus in his sheer number of resurrections—an association that can only help as the South Carolina primary vote looms.
Indeed, with the South Carolina demolition derby moving too fast for pollsters to keep up, there is only one certainty before Saturday’s primary—virtually every GOP voter will have seen Gingrich’s confrontation with CNN moderator John King live or in TV clips. It made for the kind of epic television reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 “I paid for this microphone” line. Challenged by King in the debate’s opening minutes over his ex-wife Marianne charges that he asked for an “open marriage,” Newt went nuclear again his interrogator. He piled on words like “destructive,” “vicious,” “appalled” and “despicable” before unloading with his sucker-punch-line, “I am frankly astounded that CNN would take trash like that and use it to open a presidential debate.” Gingrich’s debate opening was a direct homage to the Democratic Party’s leading unfaithful husband: namely, the screams of “tabloid trash” by Bill Clinton's campaign in 1992 in response to accusations from Gennifer Flowers.
And so, the conventional wisdom about the GOP race has shifted with the unapologetic abruptness of changes in the Communist Party line during the 1930s. Ten days ago, Mitt Romney was the presumptive GOP nominee after winning 20 delegates in Iowa and New Hampshire. So what if victory actually requires 1,144 votes at the Tampa Convention— Mitt had the Big Mo. Then it all disintegrated. Suddenly, the campaign narrative belatedly captured Romney’s vulnerabilities as perhaps the most unloved GOP front-runner since Richard Nixon in 1968—who incidentally was running against Romney’s father.
Why have the media hordes been so consistently off-base in handicapping the GOP horserace? Virtually everyone from blonde midday cable TV anchors to polling gurus like Nate Silver (his January 16 blog post was headlined, “National Polls Suggest Romney Is Overwhelming Favorite for G.O.P. Nomination”) bought into the Mitt-placed confidence in Romney’s inevitability. Let me caveat that last point (hat tip: Al Haig): Romney remains the favorite for the nomination, but it is not likely to be the quickee January coronation that was forecast just a few days ago.
Part of the explanation for the bum predictions has been a false sense of historical determinism by political reporters who should know better based on Romney’s ersatz Iowa victory. (As recently as Wednesday night in Irmo, the candidate was still chortling over his now-vanished 8-vote validation in the caucuses). The coverage coming out of New Hampshire was so tilted towards a Romney cakewalk that the other candidates were consigned to Ron Paul spoiler territory. Here are two typical morning-after stories that veer towards “Dewey Beats Truman” territory:
The Los Angeles Times page-one story on January 11 began, “Mitt Romney rolled to a convincing victory in the New Hampshire primary, taking a broad stride toward capturing the GOP presidential nomination as the contest heads south for a pair of potentially make-or-break contests. The win Tuesday gave Romney a one-two sweep in the leadoff voting of the 2012 campaign, a first for any Republican apart from a sitting president, as the race moved to South Carolina and Florida.”
USA Today’s political lede was characteristically more succinct, but equally propelled by a sense of false certainty: “Iowa: Won by a whisker. New Hampshire: Won in a walk. Can Mitt Romney be stopped for the Republican presidential nomination?”
Of course, we now know that Rick “We Wuz Robbed” Santorum ended up with 34 more votes in Iowa than Romney. But the idea that Romney or Santorum ever “won” Iowa was always ludicrous. Given the amateur-night vote-counting methods in Iowa combined with the statistical improbability of sorting out an election that close under optimum conditions, it should have been apparent for weeks that Iowa was a tie. But the oddball conventions of political journalism demanded that Iowa crown a winner because even false certainty is required when deadlines loom. (The counting of ballots in the 1988 Democratic caucuses was also a mess—and it is still ambiguous whether the anointed Dick Gephardt actually beat Paul Simon.) The Iowa caucuses should not be equated with the 2000 Florida deadlock since, in that tragic case, someone had to win the state’s electoral votes. But for all their symbolic importance, the formal purpose of the caucuses is to allocate Iowa’s 28 delegates to the GOP Convention. And guess what—Romney and Santorum were always going to be awarded the exact same number of delegates. Only in the phantasmagorical world of media perceptions does it matter which candidate had a tiny edge when the counting stopped.
At Bain Capital, Romney would never have made an investment decision based on the small sample of data from Iowa and New Hampshire. But the press corps made him the prohibitive favorite in both South Carolina and nationally in part because he is running the kind of on-message campaign that political consultants fantasize about. Romney is the perfect paint-by-numbers candidate: He is smart, disciplined, malleable and equipped (counting his personal fortunate and his SuperPAC) with a formidable bankroll. Since most political reporters uncritically accept the governing premises of campaign professionals, how could Mitt go wrong? Especially, since Romney was running against a sad-sack collection of Republicans: the over-the-hill Gingrich, stentorian septuagenarian Ron Paul and sweater-vest king Rick Santorum. Throw in the hapless Rick Perry who proved the enduring power of the Dan Quayle precedent: Once voters are convinced that you can’t spell “potato,” nothing can save your political reputation.
But what reporters also missed (and this may be a generational issue) is how much slack South Carolina voters are giving Gingrich. Unless Newt is campaigning for the Hugh Hefner nostalgia vote, it is hard to see how he gains from his former wife claiming two days before the South Carolina primary that he wanted “an open marriage.” But I wonder if South Carolina Republicans have not already factored his marital misbehavior into their calculations about the entire package that you get when you vote for Gingrich. My emblematic voter on this score is Vicki Rutland, a pharmacist from Aiken, whom I interviewed Wednesday just before Newt spoke in nearly Warrenville. “As a Christian I don’t like that he’s on his third marriage and all the things that come with that,” she said, after talking about her own marriage of 31 years. “But we live in a modern world. And while it gives me pause, it won’t determine my vote.”
The other telling moment of the debate came when Rick Santorum (who has been marginalized by Newt’s rise) wielded a stiletto as he declared, “Grandiosity has never been a problem with Newt Gingrich.” Then, echoing an argument that Mitt Romney’s SuperPAC is using as it saturates the airwaves, Santorum said, “I don’t want a nominee that I have to worry about what he’s going to say next—and that’s what I think we’re seeing here.”
Rather than lapsing into the standard “Aw-shucks, I’m just an average guy” political routine, Gingrich went out of his way to embrace his man-on-the-ramparts-of-history persona. Asked about a single regret in the campaign, Newt gave a lesson in Newtonian physics: “I would skip the opening three months where I hired regular consultants and tried to figure how to be a normal candidate. And I would just go straight to being a big ideas, big solutions, Internet-based campaign from day one.” This is Gingrich practicing the politics of authenticity just like he does when he wears suits while campaigning on weekends. Unlike Romney, Gingrich knows who he is and doesn’t try to hide it.
The fact is, the former House speaker personifies conservatism much as Ronald Reagan did in 1980. With two thirds of the state’s GOP electorate older than 45 (based on 2008 exit polls), voters remember that Newt was the most important Republican of the 1990s. His triumphs in a bleak decade for the GOP earn him a degree of latitude that will never be granted to Romney, no matter what hard-right positions Mitt takes in the quest for the nomination.
The danger, of course, in this hairpin-turn political season is to over-react to Gingrich’s momentum. Chip Felkel, a Greenville-based GOP political consultant who has not taken sides in the primary, reflected my view of the primary when he said, “It’s going to be close. The events of the last 72 hours mean that it could go either way.” Say what you will about Gingrich—and entire libraries can be written pro-and-con—he remains the most fascinating candidate of this political season. And while he probably will not get the nomination, rest assured that he will not exit the stage quietly. Not after his latest miraculous return from the great beyond.
Walter Shapiro is a special correspondent for The New Republic. He also writes the “Character Sketch” column for Yahoo! News. Follow him on twitter @waltershapiroPD.