gop race

What If Newt Wins S.C.?

Perry's out, Gingrich is surging and Romney is stumbling.

01.19.12 4:18 PM ET

If you had to construct a scenario in which Newt Gingrich could rise from the political ashes—for the second time—and surge to victory in South Carolina, it would be hard to beat the past few days.

The front runner stumbles, you whack him for hiding his tax returns, you have a strong debate performance, and one of your rivals for the evangelical vote, Rick Perry, drops out at the last minute and endorses you.

Is that enough to push Newt over the top - and if he does win, or comes close, would that transform the Republican presidential race? Perhaps even ABC's interview with his ex wife Marianne will end up being a plus, if it seems to conservative voters that the media are piling on by recycling an episode of infidelity for which Gingrich has already publicly atoned.

As Perry put it Thursday in bowing out, Newt is not perfect, but who among us is? There is forgiveness for those who seek God.

What Gingrich has craved all along is a one on one matchup with Mitt Romney, the man he casts as a Massachusetts moderate, and he's pretty close to getting it. The wild card remains Rick Santorum, whose campaign has stalled since Iowa (which, it turns out, he actually won, though the caucus gods are refusing to make it official).

In a PPP poll, Gingrich is now leading Romney 34 to 28 percent, and he’s ahead 33-31 in a Rasmussen survey. Politico gives Romney the edge, 37 to 30 percent, while NBC has Romney leading 34-24—but Newt’s numbers bump up on Tuesday, the day after the Fox News debate in Myrtle Beach.

Regardless of the margin, Newt is clearly on the move. His political experience showed in the way he handled Romney’s belated admission of paying an effective 15 percent income tax rate. Rather than berate Mitt for the sin of being rich, he said he wanted a flatter tax so everyone could pay the “Romney rate.”

Romney, meanwhile, is having a klutzy week, kissing off as “not very much” what turned out to be $374,000 in speaking fees. Gingrich hasn’t unloaded on that, perhaps because he was paid $60,000 for a speech in which he fulsomely praised private equity firms (of the Bain variety).

The press, of course, is quietly rooting for a Newt upset on Saturday, even though it would show that journalists stupidly pronounced last rites twice—once when his campaign imploded last spring, and again when Romney buried him with a negative ad barrage in Iowa.

A Gingrich win in South Carolina would be nothing short of remarkable, given the state’s role in coronating establishment figures (including, most recently, John McCain and George W. Bush). And Romney, with the backing of Gov. Nikki Haley, is most definitely the establishment candidate in this race.

That’s why Gingrich was openly pleading with the state’s voters this week to keep the conservative option alive by rallying behind him, not Santorum or Perry. And while Perry was pulling only 4 percent in the NBC poll, his decision to heed the advice of Red State founder Erick Erickson—a diehard supporter who urged him to quit—gives Newt a new burst of momentum. And Gingrich is not likely to be shy and retiring at the CNN debate Thursday night.

Still, while a Gingrich upset would send him into Florida’s Jan. 31 contest with a head of steam, the fact remains that Romney still has a well-financed operation in the dozens of states that lie ahead. Newt, who still carries plenty of baggage, as the he-wanted-an-open-marriage Marianne interview reminds us, couldn’t even get on the Virginia ballot.

But the Romney juggernaut is built around the idea of inevitability, and the game could change if that notion is thrown into doubt.