CHARLESTON, S.C.—Can Newt Gingrich consolidate enough conservative support to prevent front-runner Mitt Romney from notching a potentially decisive victory in Saturday's South Carolina primary? He's within range of an improbable South Carolina comeback amid 11th-hour developments as tumultuous as any in recent campaign history.
Multiple polls showed Gingrich surging, in some cases ahead of Romney. Yet the most seasoned observers struggled to assess whether Gingrich’s gains would survive 24 hours of rapid-fire developments virtually unprecedented in recent campaign history -- among them Rick Perry’s withdrawal from the race and endorsement of Gingrich, Marianne Gingrich's coruscating allegations against her ex-husband, Iowa’s stunning declaration that Rick Santorum had apparently won its caucuses after all, and another raucous debate.
All of that followed a rocky week for Romney that saw him stirring controversy over his taxes – refusing to release his returns before April, acknowledging that his overall tax rate was likely as low as 15 percent, and suggesting that some $370,000 he earned in speaking fees one year was small change. One insider said it was the single worst week for Romney since he announced his candidacy. And that was before Romney drew audible boos for dodging a Thursday night debate question about whether he would release as many years of tax returns as his father George Romney did when he ran for president in 1968.
Gingrich’s rise threatened the formula that had the Romney camp, only a few days ago, envisioning a South Carolina victory followed by a march to the nomination, given the financial and organizational advantages he enjoys in other states. Romney has built a solid base of support here, particularly among more business-oriented and pragmatic voters clustered around Charleston and Columbia. But, given the doubts about him among conservatives, even his own camp acknowledges that he probably faces a ceiling of support at around one-third of the vote.
That means the critical dynamic in the campaign’s final day is whether Gingrich can expand his own support to a level that Romney cannot equal. The dynamic may be like an aerial dogfight in which the question is which plane can climb higher to gain the tactical advantage.
It’s unclear how Gingrich’s performance at Thursday night’s debate will play in Saturday's primary, but it was a crowd-pleaser within the hall. He received loud applause at the outset after CNN’s John King opened it with a question about Marianne Gingrich, who told ABC that Newt asked her for an open marriage so he could continue a six-year affair with the woman who is now his third wife, Callista.
Gingrich thundered with outrage at the audacity of King asking a salacious question to open a presidential debate. He received multiple standing ovations to his defiant answer, and pivoted to an attack on President Obama and the media –- two reliable conservative bogeymen.
“I am tired of elite media protecting Barack Obama,” Gingrich concluded to roars from the audience. It was reminiscent of when he expressed outrage at Fox News moderator Juan Williams on Monday for the premise of his questions – a moment that many Republican strategists say began Gingrich’s surge in the state.
For Romney, the blueprint for success in South Carolina is the same one that allowed John McCain, another front-runner who faced widespread skepticism among many conservatives, to capture the state with just 33 percent of the vote in 2008: divide and conquer. “I’d take 2008 and go home,” acknowledged Warren Tompkins, a veteran South Carolina GOP strategist who recently joined the Romney effort.
In almost all of the surveys released this week, Romney has established a strong advantage among the more pragmatic and secular elements of the party -- such as voters who consider themselves only somewhat conservative or don’t identify as evangelical Christians -- while opening respectable beachheads among more conservative voters. Equally important, the more ideological voters skeptical of Romney were dividing among what The State newspaper called “the faith and values trinity” of Gingrich, Perry, and Rick Santorum. In both the Time/CNN/ORC and Politico surveys released in the state over the past day, for instance, Romney drew much more support among voters who do not identify as evangelical Christians than Gingrich or anyone else did among voters who do.
Still, the resistance to Romney in more conservative circles poses a serious challenge. “Romney really does face a task in moving much above 32-33 percent, even in a good situation,” said James Guth, a Furman University political scientist. Several top Romney advisers agree. “I’ve said all along our number was 34, which was about the McCain number,” said one. “I think we may well get to that number-but that may be our ceiling down there.”
Heading into this week, it seemed that even such a modest showing might be enough for Romney to capture the state as conservatives fragmented. But Gingrich this week demonstrated tangible success, particularly with the party’s more conservative elements, in arguing that the only way to prevent the former Massachusetts governor from effectively clinching the nomination on Saturday was to unify behind him.
Santorum continued to loom as a major bump on that road: At Thursday’s debate, he laid into Gingrich over his erratic management style. In a sound bite that’s likely to replayed repeatedly, Santorum said that “grandiosity has never been a problem with Newt Gingrich.” He said he didn't want a nominee so unpredictable that "I have to worry ... about what he is going to say next."
Santorum is currently winning over a modest but potentially critical slice of conservatives, many of whom are concerned about Gingrich’s personal baggage. After winning an endorsement from a group of prominent evangelical leaders last weekend, he campaigned across the state Thursday with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. Santorum’s support has been stagnant, but after his strong performance Thursday he might revive, pulling away voters that Gingrich needs to overcome Romney.
Former state party chairman Katon Dawson, who had supported Perry, said Romney’s vote was totally flat and dependent on his strong organization to turn out his core voters in the business community. “What concerns me the most is elections are about emotions and heat and it takes that to beat an incumbent president,” Dawson said. “Romney has a fine organization, a message machine. Newt does not have that but what he does have is an inexhaustible supply of solutions for America.”
What Gingrich and the rest of the dwindling band chasing Romney do not have is an inexhaustible supply of time. Romney advisers acknowledge that Gingrich may have recorded the same sort of gains this week in Florida, the next critical state on the calendar, as he’s shown in South Carolina. After the debate, Gingrich suggested to CNN that he intends to fight on even if Romney wins South Carolina. But especially with the shadow of the allegations from his former wife looming over him, it would be extremely difficult for Gingrich to overtake Romney in Florida's Jan. 31 primary if he does not receive a boost from a victory here on Saturday -- and not easy even if he does.
And a Florida win for Romney could seal his nomination. In an almost unprecedented swirl of dramatic developments, South Carolina appears poised, once again, to decide whether the Republican race marches on toward the spring, or effectively ends this weekend.