By embracing Newt Gingrich in its primary, the South Carolina GOP has risked its remarkable record of success at picking the party's eventual nominee for president.
It's been quite a run. Beginning with its primary in 1980, when it chose Ronald Reagan, South Carolina has voted first among Southern states. And the Palmetto State's choice has gone on to dominate the other Southern states and lock up the nomination in short order. That happened eight times in a row, counting incumbent renominations.
Without taking anything away from the state's apparent perspicacity, the secret to it was this: South Carolina voted for the man favored by most of the party establishment nationally. That was true in the cases of Ronald Reagan (twice), George H.W. Bush (twice), Robert Dole, George W. Bush (twice) and, most recently, John McCain in 2008.
But this year, in what may have been the rudest gesture South Carolina has given the national GOP since Fort Sumter, primary voters there suddenly rebuffed the national front-runner in favor of a candidate who had finished no better than fourth in Iowa and New Hampshire.
That candidate would be Gingrich, the former House Speaker, who spent most of 2011 languishing near the bottom of a large field of would-be challengers to President Obama led by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Late in the year, after several other rivals to Romney had risen briefly and self-destructed, Gingrich got his turn. For a brief time, he led the polls nationally and in South Carolina and seemed to be consolidating the not-Romney vote.
Then a superPAC affiliated with Romney's campaign spent the holiday season flooding Iowa TV sets with anti-Gingrich ads. The former speaker plummeted from sight once again. In New Hampshire, he came out swinging in retaliation, telling Romney to "cut the pious baloney" and raising the issue of job cuts at companies owned by Bain Capital, where Romney was a principal partner.
But none of that seemed to matter. Romney won New Hampshire in a walk, leaving Gingrich battling former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum for fourth place.
On the strength of his apparent wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, Romney was fitted for the laurel wreath in mid-January. Polls showed him well ahead in South Carolina, and in the looming mega-state contest in Florida at month's end.
That was a week ago.
In the intervening days, Romney was beset by a series of disasters, beginning with the Monday night FOX News debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Although he had some good moments, Romney stumbled grotesquely on the issue of releasing his tax returns. He might, he said, maybe in April. But he was non-committal about how many years he might release.
Even more amazing was his equally ambivalent answer to the same question three nights later in the CNN debate in Charleston. And in statements in the intervening days, he allowed as how he paid a tax rate of "about 15 percent" except on speech income, which he said "didn't amount to much." It turned out to amount to more than $370,000 — which is just about enough to qualify for the top 1 percent of income nationally.
Romney seemed to regard it as little more than rounding error.
And if the week had not been going badly enough, on Thursday the Iowa Republicans announced that he had not really won their caucuses earlier in the month. There were precincts missing, but it seemed Santorum had won more votes. The change in margin was insignificant, but Romney's claim to having won Iowa and New Hampshire was invalidated.
Simultaneous with this dimming of Romney's aura came another ominous development. Gingrich began connecting with debate audiences as never before, bringing them to their feet on Monday and Thursday nights with his assault on "the food stamp president" and his duel with the moderators from FOX and CNN.
The latter feat of jujitsu was especially stunning, as he took a lead-off question about his infidelity to his second wife (whose interview with ABC News was set to air later that night) from CNN's John King. Striking a pose of righteous victimhood, Gingrich delivered an anti-media screed to a standing ovation. The other candidates, utterly cowed, backed off the issue.
So just as Romney was finally slipping badly, Gingrich was finally finding a sweet spot. The effect of that weeklong dynamic showed up in tracking polls from Tuesday on, with the final fruit falling in the former speaker's lap on Saturday night.
What happens next?
Romney needs a way to stanch his bleeding, especially in the coming debates: Monday night in Tampa and Thursday night in Jacksonville. He also needs to find again the vulnerabilities Gingrich has been able to protect by staying on the offensive. And finally, Romney has to hope Gingrich once again breaks his own personal winning streak by letting his famous volubility get the better of him.
Otherwise, the results in Florida may well validate the judgment hazarded by Republican voters in South Carolina, who this year decided to forgo the sure bet for once, go with their gut and go all in with the long shot.