Michael Tomasky: Newt’s Racist Surge May Sink Romney in South Carolina

Newt is giving Romney a run for his money in South Carolina—and we all know the reason why.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP Photo

The first comeback surge by Newt Gingrich, back in December, was mostly about the fact that he was the next-in-line plausible anti-Mitt. Then he collapsed. By the way, does anyone remember why? It seems so long ago! Evidently South Carolina Republicans think it’s ancient history, because now Gingrich has re-re-returned, and this time it’s about simple racism. If he actually wins South Carolina, the nomination fight and the party are suddenly in turmoil. It may only be for a week, but even just for that week, it would reveal a primary electorate that is so consumed with its paranoias that it has turned politics completely away from the question of who might govern the country well to who can best embody our hatreds and revenge fantasies. Conservatism has been half that for 30 years anyway, but it is now on the cusp of dispensing with the artifice and becoming that entirely.

Is a Gingrich win plausible? Sure. First, consider the question of this Iowa recount, the results of which are supposedly going to be announced on Thursday. If you haven’t read my colleague John Avlon’s report on the Iowa situation, by all means do so. The long and short of it is that a Romney vote count in one precinct was evidently (and as an honest mistake) misrecorded as 22 when it should have been two. This happened in a county where, in the other 11 precincts, Romney received either single-digit vote totals or zero, so the 22 does stand out. That right there flips the result to Rick Santorum plus 12.

Of course it’s possible that other entering errors were made in Santorum’s favor. But if the story line later today is Santorum Really Won, that, I think, is a huge problem for Romney. It doesn’t do Santorum any real good, alas; nothing can replace having been able to say “I won!” on the night of the event. But it can do Romney harm: Two days before the South Carolina voting, with Gingrich creeping up on him, we suddenly get word that Romney is maybe not in fact the first non-incumbent ever to win both Iowa and New Hampshire. Gingrich harps on this. Santorum, ditto, obviously. Romney will be asked about and will (I’ll go out on a limb here) say something off-key and mockable.

Even if that doesn’t turn out to be the case, Gingrich is obviously gaining. And we all know why. I was watching Hardball last night and they ran a clip of a woman speaking to Gingrich earlier yesterday. “I would like to thank you, Mr. Speaker, for putting Mr. Juan Williams in his place the other night.” Huge applause. In his place! Amazing. And the way she said it. “MIS-ter Wahn WILL-yums.” Wow.

Now remember, there’s a debate tonight. I’ll be there, in fact. There will undoubtedly be some kind of follow-up. Gingrich will be offered an opportunity to refine his views. He will double down. The state will name him the new Strom Thurmond (which it will mean as a compliment).

One asterisk. Apparently, ABC will air, on Thursday night’s Nightline, an interview with Marianne Gingrich, wife number two, that is said to be devastating. This might alter everything. Just keep it tucked away.

But Gingrich does have a way of talking himself out of situations. He wants to be our age’s Disraeli; he is in fact its Eddie Haskell. So let us say he ekes out a win. Or even comes really close. Couple it with news that Romney actually lost in Iowa. Now we head to Florida. Santorum, if he shows poorly Saturday, and signs are that he will, may pull out. Perry definitely will call it quits. That leaves just Gingrich and Romney, and oh yeah, that guy who can’t buy suits, with the fervent base of misfit toys. Of course he’s a racist, too, now that I think about it; maybe he ought to be emphasizing that in the next couple of days. Then we’d surely see his “natural ceiling” rise.

But Florida, for all intents and purposes, becomes a Romney vs. Gingrich showdown. There are Romneyish parts of Florida, smooth and urbane. And there are the parts of Florida that Crockett and Tubbs never quite got to, up in the northern sticks. They’re probably not big fans of MIS-ter Wahn WILL-yums there either. Oh. Now I remember why Gingrich collapsed. All the money Romney spent on ads in Iowa that destroyed him. Something tells me that under these circumstances, those ads would be answered this time around.

All of this might not happen. Old boring Romney might just win Saturday and that’ll be it. But the Gingrich surge, and the ugly reason for it, show that these voters will fight the Romneyfication of the GOP until the last breath. They want blood on the floor. And they’re likely to get it: their own.