South Carolina: Showdown
There's a saying: Desperate times require desperate measures.
Newt Gingrich was desperate. It was obvious to him that he should be winning the primary elections, but it wasn't obvious to the voters. No matter what happened, they continued to vote for the default candidate, Mitt Romney. Everything was riding on Saturday's election in South Carolina. If Romney won there, he'd continue to win everywhere. If he could be stopped, the race would suddenly be wide open.
As a student of military history, Gingrich knew what to do. First, he told the other candidates to get out of the race. (Only Rick Perry listened to him. Jon Huntsman had already decided to cut his losses.)
Then Gingrich attacked Romney in the way his opponent least expected. Romney, he said, had made his fortune from other people's misfortune; Romney's firm, Bain Capital, bought companies, shed workers, and sold the companies' assets at a profit.
Newt's surprise attack
Romney was incredulous. This is what the Democrats were supposed to attack him with! But as he faltered during a debate last week, he didn't deny his business practices. He said this is how the free-market system works — rewarding success and punishing failure. When a reporter asked what tax rate Romney paid, the candidate guessed 15 percent, because most of his income is from dividends. This did not go down well: the regular tax rate for millionaires is 29.2 percent.
In a second debate, Gingrich went for the jugular. He announced during the debate that he was making his 2011 tax return public. When would Romney release his? Romney stumbled and stuttered, offering a vague answer that changed and changed again in a sentence that got longer and longer. Viewers began to wonder whether he was hiding something.
All that was left for Gingrich to do was to emphasize that, if nominated, he would go after Barack Obama (whom he called "the most dangerous president of our lifetime") the same way in the general election. The 53 percent of South Carolina voters who had been undecided suddenly made up their minds, and Gingrich won the primary.
The three bears
Gingrich's success at what CNN's Gloria Borger called "asymmetrical warfare" is certainly noteworthy. But he had a little help — and not just from his debate coaches, who have apparently taught him how to pronounce the words "Washington" and "entrepreneur". The candidates are not doing all their own campaigning. Following a 2010 Supreme Court decision, groups that support candidates — but have no contact to them — are allowed to advertise for them. (Watch a short explanation of how this works.)
After complaining loudly about anti-Gingrich ads put out by a pro-Romney Super-PAC, Gingrich cheerfully referred to a 28-minute documentary that would "tell the truth" about Romney. By knowing about the documentary, Gingrich may have been breaking the law, but few seem to have picked up on this.
Rick Santorum, meanwhile, learned that some ballots had been lost in Iowa, putting the final count in that state in his favor. The media narrative suddenly changed from Romney being the presumptive nominee to three candidates each having won a primary. Santorum placed them in the story of Goldilocks and the three bears: "You have one candidate that's a little too radioactive, a little too hot. And then we have another candidate who's just too darn cold, who doesn't have bold plans. We need someone who's just right."
Many Republicans still feel the same way. CNN's John King said that if Gingrich wins the next primary, in Florida on January 31, "the Republican establishment will have a panic attack." We'll see if it comes to that. Romney and his Super-PAC have already bought nearly $5 million worth of ads in Florida, and we can be certain that they'll air all of Gingrich's dirty laundry. It's a fight to the death now.
— Mike Pilewski
Read more about Election 2012.