What South Carolina Was Thinking

Newt’s win was in keeping with the Palmetto State’s hostility toward elites. Mark McKinnon on Romney’s challenge from here on in.

01.22.12 2:31 AM ET

Hold the coronation.

South Carolina is tough political territory. it is hardball country. I remember when we arrived in South Carolina the day after George W. Bush got whipped by 19 points in New Hampshire in 2000. We met with our local supporters, and it was quickly apparent we were dealing with a different brand of politics. It was clear our local supporters were going to let the dogs off their chains. And boy did they.

South Carolinians don't like elitists. They don't like nice guys. They like candidates who can hang at the bowling alley or the barbecue. And they like fighters.

So, it shouldn't come as any great surprise that Newt Gingrich dropped the hammer on Mitt Romney. Gingrich knows the code of the South. He knows the body language and sends all the right smoke signals.

And so, suddenly the guy who was going to make history by sweeping the first three primaries only won one of them.

What a turn of events in such a short period of time. Once again, conventional wisdom gets thrown out the window.

A big part of Romney's current problem, which helped lead to his South Carolina collapse, is he caved on his taxes. It reminds me of Clayton Williams, who ran for governor against Ann Richards in Texas in 1990. Williams was winning by double digits into the final weeks of the campaign. But Richards had relentlessly been calling on him to reveal his taxes. He held the line for months, then inexplicably folded and declared that even though he made millions, due to x, y, and z problems in the oil business, he had actually paid zero taxes the year before. Well, try explaining that to your average voter. The Williams campaign collapsed overnight.

This is a big problem for Romney. Because he has already declared that he only paid a 15 percent tax rate. Well, try explaining that to your average voter. Americans are obsessed about the notion of fairness. They don't care if you make a lot of money. Just as long as you do it fairly, and don't get only preferential treatment.

So, while Mitt was trying to explain how he pays about half the tax rate as the majority of Americans, Gingrich was taking a hammer and tong to the media reminding voters that he's a fighter. And more than anything, that's what GOP primary voters are looking for. Rick Perry's and Sarah Palin's endorsements meant a whole lot more than South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley's. Because she is not particularly popular and reinforced Romney's fundamental problem: that he is the candidate of the elites.

So, once again the GOP primary is scrambled eggs.  Romney faces an existential threat as the race heads south —where there will be decided home field advantage for Gingrich.

Game on.