Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich are both trying to help South Carolina voters imagine what will happen if Gingrich captures the nomination. In the Gingrich model, he crushes President Obama in the fall 2012 debates, wins a huge victory on Election Day, and prepares the country for fundamental change. In the Romney vision, the undisciplined Gingrich clatters into the fall surrounded by the wreckage of his campaign: His oddball comments set off a series of press feeding frenzies, and he manages to squander a huge Republican opportunity to regain the White House.
Newt Gingrich is closing in on Romney in South Carolina. A Time poll out late Wednesday confirms what is already apparent on the ground. Romney is at 33 percent and Gingrich is at 23 percent, a recent slip of four points for Romney and an increase of five for Gingrich. Former Sen. Rick Santorum, the other contender for the non-Romney vote, trails with 16 percent. Gingrich was the clear winner of Monday’s debate, Romney and Santorum have started attacking him (a sure sign he’s on the move), and his pitch to voters is solid. (Plus, as Dave Weigel notes, Gingrich's body language screams confidence; if he could have moonwalked off the debate stage Monday night, he might have.)
If Gingrich doesn't catch Romney, it might be the last chance for those in the party who want to stop the front-runner. "Your support in the next four days can change history," Gingrich said at a forum sponsored by the state Chamber of Commerce. "If I win the primary Saturday night, I will be the nominee. I think it's literally that simple. And if I don't win the primary Saturday, we will probably nominate a moderate and odds are fairly high that he will lose to Obama."
Conservative voters generally agree that they want Gingrich, Santorum, and Perry to find a way not to split the anti-Romney vote. Gingrich has been making the hard sell that he is the only credible alternative: “Any vote for Santorum or Perry, in effect, is a vote to allow Romney to become the nominee, because we’ve got to bring conservatives together in order to stop him.”
Gingrich's closing pitch is founded on his debate performances. He was strong Monday night and he can't stop boasting about it. At a rally in Florence, S.C. Tuesday, he described what it was like watching the crowd in the hall rise to its feet to applaud him. By Wednesday, he was telling crowds it was the first time a candidate had won a standing ovation since Ronald Reagan's famous burst of anger in Nashua, N.H. in 1980.
Gingrich’s aggressive tone syncs well with Republican enthusiasm for really beating Obama. After Gingrich finished speaking Tuesday, a man asked a question insisting that the Republican nominee had to go after Obama and "bloody his nose." Gingrich, who stood before an American flag and a sculpture of a bald eagle with wings outstretched, offered, "I don't want to bloody his nose, I want to knock him out." The audience liked that line a great deal.
Afterward, Jesse Adams, a retired agriculture extension agent, was gushing about Gingrich and his debate performances. "He has a fire in the belly," he said "Most of all, what we need is someone who can beat Barack Obama and stop what's going on in Washington."
Supporters waiting for Rick Santorum to arrive at the Flight Deck restaurant in Lexington were also desperate for someone to beat Obama. They really like Santorum, they share his values and want to vote for him, but they're not sure. "I worry though," said Susan Sisk, "can he go all the way." Nancy Eaton was there because she's undecided between Gingrich and Santorum. After listing the reasons she likes Santorum I asked her how much stock she puts in Gingrich's claim that he can beat Obama in the debates. You'd think I'd asked her if you needed the sun to grow flowers. "That's a no brainer." The desire among Santorum voters for a little bit more might be where Gingrich’s new votes are coming from.
The Romney camp didn't need the Time poll to know Gingrich was gaining on them. Romney has returned to attacking Gingrich, saying Gingrich's claim that he helped create jobs during the Reagan and Clinton era is like Al Gore taking credit for the Internet. His campaign scheduled a conference call with reporters to undermine Gingrich’s leadership credentials. The conference passcode was "unreliable leader." Former Sen. Jim Talent and former Rep. Susan Molinari described a reckless, unhinged management style. "It was leadership by chaos," said Molinari. "If Speaker Gingrich is the nominee he will be the issue, not Barack Obama." They argued that he had not changed in the years since the speakership and pointed to his erratic moments on the campaign trail as proof of the embedded defect.
Santorum is making the same case. "Newt is great in a think tank," he said to the Lexington crowd, "coming up with a lot of different policy ideas, but as far as leadership … three years into his speakership there was a conservative revolution against Newt trying to throw him out because he wasn't following conservative principles."
There is one more debate before the South Carolina vote on Saturday. Given Newt Gingrich's penchant for hyperbole and his regard for his debate performances, he may very well declare it the most significant event in history since the Big Bang. It may well determine whether his campaign continues with one or ends with a whimper.