For years, if not decades, the South Carolina primary has been thought of as ‘true’ conservatives firewall to prevent silly or liberal candidates from sneaking through Iowa and New Hampshire to win the Republican nomination.
But it hasn’t always worked out that way. Bob Dole crushed right-winger Pat Buchanan there in 1996. And John McCain defeated a divided conservative field in 2008 on his way to the nomination.
But this year, the firewall is back.
Newt Gingrich’s surge from virtual oblivion is stunning, and will keep the nomination fight going for a significant time. After Iowa, it looked like the ‘new’ Gingrich was going to revert to the ‘old’ Gingrich: a brilliant man who, when angry, would self-destruct and become more destructive than constructive. Newt’s attacks on Romney, whether it be about the Political Action Committees or Romney’s days with Bain Capital, were awkward, reactionary, and eventually, not that effective. And that is why Gingrich lost ground to Romney, Paul, and even Santorum in New Hampshire.
But after New Hampshire, Gingrich finally accepted a basic fact. The ‘old’ Newt would lose in dramatic fashion. So he quickly course corrected, gave up the anti-capitalistic rant regarding Bain, and became the guy that had convinced a lot of conservatives to give him a chance in the first place: an intelligent and eloquent voice in defense of conservatism and capitalism. He stuck to the script, laid asidethe Romney attacks for the most part, and focused on the Gingrich persona that had created his first national surge last fall.
It has worked, beyond I am willing to bet even Newt’s immense dreams. Newt kept on course. And while he did that, Huntsman and Perry dropped out. Santorum didn’t make a significant move. And Mitt? Mitt Romney incomprehensibly stumbled on an incredibly stupid and easy issue: his tax forms. Instead of simply answering that he would release him, he gave inept answer after inept answer, to what end I have no idea. His campaign appeared to be on cruise control, assuming they could just walk in and do well in South Carolina. They were wrong.
So Newt’s victory in South Carolina alters the entire dynamic of the campaign. This more and more looks like the Democrat nomination of 2008. Romney, playing the role of Hillary, is the establishment candidate that has weaknesses, but is safest for the party apparatus. Gingrich is the insurgent candidate, who no one inside the party or out are sure where he will take them. And the Democrats nomination process in 2008 went well into the summer, if you recall.
So 10 days until the Florida primary. Romney has the edge in support and money, but Gingrich has the momentum. Momentum may not be enough in a large state like Florida, where retail politics doesn’t really work, and advertising is essential. And Gingrich, unlike a Democrat, cannot depend on positive free media despite his stunning victory in South Carolina. But enthusiasm means a lot in politics, and the question becomes can Newt convert this victory into an enthusiasm gap that Romney cannot overcome.
The best thing that could happen for Gingrich would be Rick Santorum dropping out. I cannot see that happening, with Santorum gaining social conservative backing over the past week. So if the conservative vote remains divided, I still have to believe that Romney is the favorite in Florida. Only time will tell if conventional wisdom wins out, or if Newt turns the entire establishment on its ear.