South Carolina Primary: Gingrich Surges to Threaten Romney’s Frontrunner Status

In a nail-biter primary that could redefine the race, voting has begun in South Carolina.

As the clock ticked toward 10 p.m. on a rainy night in South Carolina, Mitt Romney feverishly worked the rope line at Larkin’s Sawmill after a day stacked with rallies and town halls. Smiling and glad-handing, Romney was hunting for every vote in conservative-heavy Greenville as his campaign faced down the very real possibility that he will lose this crucial state to Newt Gingrich in Saturday’s primary.

Disciplined as always, he pumped up the small crowd with his tightly scripted stump speech, promising to abolish Obamacare, create jobs, close the national deficit, and return the country to the prosperity and purpose it once knew.

He deviated just once, to tell the crowd, “You’re gonna get me!” as they chanted “We want Mitt!” As always, he was cheerful, controlled, and predictably sunny.

But in reality, the compulsively tidy Romney has come unwound this week, trying to brush off messy questions about his enormous wealth, where it comes from, and the limited taxes he pays on it. As Romney has stumbled, Gingrich has soared, reveling in the slop of South Carolina’s notoriously dirty politics and revealing himself as the street fighter that conservatives have desperately sought for a bout against Obama in the fall.

The trouble started for Romney earlier in the week when, after initially refusing to release his tax returns, he told reporters in Florence that he would probably would release them and casually mentioned that rather than the top 32 percent tax rate, he “probably pays closer to the 15 percent tax rate.”

When asked Thursday night in the CNN debate if he really would make his taxes public, Romney ignited boo’s from the Charleston crowd when he joked “maybe.”

Compare that performance to Gingrich’s, who met explosive claims from his ex-wife that he had once suggested an open marriage by scolding CNN’s John King as “despicable” for even asking about it. While Romney seemed totally unprepared for the obvious questions that came his way, Gingrich’s months of planning for the inevitable controversy about his marriage shut it down entirely. The same crowd that booed Romney erupted in applause for Gingrich’s bold stand.

The reaction to Gingrich in the debate hall mirrored the electricity he has been generating all week in what is essentially his own backyard. Where Romney is careful and cautious, Gingrich is joyfully brazen. While Romney describes the president a good man who is bad at his job, Gingrich impugns him as a Saul Alinsky-style radical socialist, “the most radical president in our lifetimes,” he flatly declared Friday.

Most importantly, Gingrich has spoken in the language that Southerners know as their own, telling them that both their pride and frustration are well placed, and promising to make their lives what they used to be in better times.

The result has been a total reversal of fortunes for the two men since Gingrich posted a fourth-place finish in Iowa and New Hampshire. Polls that last week showed Romney leading South Carolina by double digits have swung wildly in Gingrich’s favor. The former speaker is now predicted to win South Carolina by 2 to 6 points on Saturday.

Sarah Hurley from Greenville went to see Romney Friday and said she was excited to vote for him, calling him “level-headed, steady, and above the fray.”

Susan Lucas felt the same way, but she worried he might have trouble in the South. “I think Southerners aren’t gong to vote for a Yankee from Massachusetts.” She also said Romney’s Mormonism could hurt him in the evangelical-heavy state. And unlike many Gingrich supporters, Lucas said the former speaker’s marital infidelities do bother her. “If your family can’t depend on you, how can your country depend on you?” she asked.

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In a twist that Romney’s camp has to hope is isolated, Chip Hunt from Greenville said he had been undecided but came around to Romney on Friday night. “You can see he’s passionate. You can see his convictions, stuff you don’t see in the media.” Hunt said he wants to see Romney as president, but added that he is voting for Newt Gingrich on Saturday.

“I want the race to keep going,” he said. The chances are good Chip Hunt will get his wish.