Reactions to Newt Gingrich’s stunning and impressive victory in the South Carolina primary form a symphony. First, of course, we hear the cheers of South Carolina Republicans who have chosen their champion. From Ronald Reagan in 1980 through John McCain in 2008, the winner of this primary has always gone on to be the Republican nominee.
Then, of course, we can hear the buttons popping from Newt Gingrich’s shirt as his ego swells to Macy’s parade size. If you listen carefully, you can hear the soft sobs of Mitt Romney and his consultants, crying in their chocolate milk.
But above it all we can hear the weeping, the wailing, the gnashing of teeth of the Republican establishment as Gingrich’s victory sends them into full-blown panic. I’m not talking about mere fear, nor normal nervousness. Not even the feeling you get when the captain says, “We’ve lost power in one of our four engines.” No, this is worse. Worse even than when your doctor says, “I don’t like the looks of that shadow on the X-ray.”
This is terror. Chest-clutching, breath-sucking, soul-shaking panic. This is your teenage daughter telling you, “I think I’m in trouble.” This is a Turkish border guard pulling you into a holding room when you’ve got a baggie of coke in your pocket. This is what George H.W. Bush famously called “deep doo-doo.”
The Republican Party has never seen anything like it. Republicans are hierarchical, orderly, disciplined—everything the Democrats are not. They nearly always nominate the guy who was runner-up last time: Ford beat Reagan, and Reagan got the next nod. Reagan beat George H.W. Bush, so Bush Sr. got the next turn. And then Bush beat Dole, who in turn was rewarded with the 1996 GOP nod. Then they got all wild and crazy and nominated the son of a former president, but then quickly reverted to form and nominated the guy he defeated, John McCain. And who did McCain beat? Mitt Romney.
As the anointed one, Romney had all the advantages, especially the most important: money. But as the Beatles taught us, money can’t buy you love. Romney and the super PAC that supports him outspent Gingrich and the pro-Gingrich super PAC in South Carolina by a 2–1 margin ($4 million to $2.16 million.)
Gingrich won the South Carolina primary not because of advertising, but rather because of his debate performances. Eighty-eight percent of South Carolina Republicans said the debates were important to making up their minds, and in the two key debates, Gingrich hit every GOP erogenous zone. He scolded Fox News’s Juan Williams when Williams asked him about the dog-whistle language Gingrich uses to stir up racial stereotypes. Williams, the author of Eyes on the Prize, a respected history of the civil-rights movement, knows of what he speaks. But Gingrich knows his party’s base, and the base loves both the coded language and attacking anyone who calls them on it.
But it was Thursday night’s CNN debate that sealed the deal. Going into the debate, Gingrich and Romney were tied in the polls. And each had an important and obvious question they were going to be asked: for Gingrich, it was his ex-wife’s explosive allegation that he had asked for an “open marriage.” For Romney, it was whether he would release his tax returns. Think about it: which question would you rather answer? Mitt had the easier challenge by a mile. Yet Gingrich got a standing ovation by bitterly denouncing moderator John King in particular and the media in general. Romney got booed for his weak, waffling non-answer.
Between now and the Jan. 31 Florida primary, we will hear a furious, frenzied response from the Republican establishment. Team Romney has already spent $7 million on TV ads there—Team Gingrich just $800. Not $800,000. Just 800 bucks. Look for popular former governor Jeb Bush to endorse Romney in the Sunshine State, leading a parade of establishmentarians.
Will Romney’s money and endorsements be able to overwhelm Gingrich’s electrifying debate performances? They weren’t in South Carolina. But Romney has an ace in the hole. The one person who has consistently derailed Newt Gingrich’s political career is Newt Gingrich.