“It is not that I am a good debater, it is that I articulate the most deeply held convictions of the American people.” At his victory party, Newton Leroy Gingrich was getting the first of many roaring ovations. It was Saturday, 9pm, political junkies across the state and nation had settled in for a night, and the damn thing was already over, with Gingrich winning the state with a stonking 40%, to Romney’s pitiful showing of 28%. I had gone out for 15 minutes about 8pm, and by the time I got back, Romney had conceded.

I heard his nervy, shamefaced speech on the car radio. Santorum had already spoken, and Ron Paul, who had barely campaigned in SC, had done a TV interview. Now it was Newt’s moment, and he took it, at 25 minutes’ length. It was, as these things always are, simply his stump speech re-ordered, and with a few thank yous at the top, but Gingrich delivered it with his usual force. All the greatest hits, like a stand-up called to do a rubber-chicken awards at the last minute. “The elites have been trying to change the nature of this country for half a century … I want to run not a republican campaign, but an American campaign … President Obama is a food-stamps president, I want to be the paycheck president … Callista would make a wonderful first lady …”

On and on it went, through the highways and byways of his policies, using the oil revenue from the pipeline to pay for widening Charleston Harbour that will restore export possibilities for a workforce retrained while on unemployment benefits, after they have worked as janitors while attending school to learn the virtues of … the Gingrich style, technocratic and managerialist in its essence, wrapping it all in the flag and the declaration of independence to make it all look genuinely constitutional.

He had earned it of course. This was a victory achieved in the last week of the South Carolina campaign, and against the odds. Following a solid victory in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney had been polling in the Palmetto State with a 10-15-point lead, impressive for someone seen as a dangerous moderate. The pundits were all looking towards a new record, the first time that a Republican candidate would take a hat trick in the first three contests, and anyone who said different was accused of playing out the campaign for desperate media purposes. Gingrich and Santorum had polled more or less equally in New Hampshire, and Santorum had come a close second in Iowa. He wasn’t leaving the race, and Gingrich needed his votes to pull ahead of Romney. It was all over.

But that assessment did not factor in Newt Gingrich’s secret weapon against Romney, and that was Mitt Romney. By the start of the last week in South Carolina, Romney looked merely perpetually awkward, plastic and not really wanting to be there, but willing to go through with it. By the end of the week, and with hapless booby Rick Perry out of the hunt, Romney looked like he was in the National Lampoon version of his own life, and being played, in his last great role, by Chevy Chase. In Tuesday’s Fox News debate from Myrtle Beach, he was hammered again on the conduct of Bain Capital, the perfectly named quick-bucks repackaging fund that he had got enormously rich off of, in the ’90s.

When that was done, he was hammered on releasing the tax returns for all the money he had earned, then and now. Whether he had prepared the answer he gave — that he would release them in April, during tax season — it wasn’t enough. The candidates were asked what federal income tax rate they would set. Romney’s bid was 15%.

That double turned out to be a fatal self-inflicted set-up, for the next day Romney, when asked what rate of tax he actually paid, airily suggested that it was probably about 15%, and did a bit of wondering out loud about how many tax returns he would actually release, maybe three years, who knows.

Gingrich used this clog-footed gavotte to do him thoroughly. On Thursday night, he had his returns released at the same time as the second debate was taking place, which returns showed him to have paid nearly a million tax on three million income, thus demonstrating that he earned top dollar, and paid around the average tax rate. It was in that debate that Romney pretty much did himself over — when asked if he would release the past 12 years of his returns, he replied, cutely, “maybe”, and giggled girlishly.

The answer was particularly disastrous because the politician who had started the practice of releasing his tax returns — 12 years’ worth — was George Romney, governor of Michigan, 1968 Republican nomination candidate, and, of course, Mitt’s father.

What possessed Mitt to have worse than no answer to the very question closest to his own life and heritage? The question is the answer. Like just about every politician following in his father’s footsteps, there is a part of Mitt that does not really want this. More than that, desperately does not want it. For the most part that desire can be confined to a small part of the soul, but when things start to go badly, it will begin to feed off the failure, and grow. Since that black spot is, by its very nature, the father-son relationship, it is the one thing that will not be thought through.

The most important thing Mitt Romney had to do to nail South Carolina was to get a simple, consistent story together on his tax return; but that was the the one thing he was constitutionally unable to do was because it was a proxy for the father-son relationship. People wonder how such screw-ups are possible. It’s because they don’t occur in real time, but in some psychic space, where things can be for ever deferred.

Whatever, it was a huge screw-up, another unforced error by the Richie Tenenbaum of Republican politics. The failure was made worse by Newt Gingrich’s flawless handling of “new” revelations around his personal life at the top of the second debate. Throughout Thursday, the media had drip-fed bits of the interview with Gingrich’s second wife, Marianne, a furiously scorned woman who revealed that Newt had asked her for an open marriage, so he could continue a relationship with Callista, his blonde-helmeted third wifebot. The second debate was hosted by CNN, and moderator John King led with a question, that could have destroyed Gingrich — but gave him his best moment:

JOHN KING: And just as speaker Gingrich surged into contention here in South Carolina, a direct fresh character attack on the Speaker.

And Mr Speaker, I want to start with that this evening.

As you know, your ex-wife gave an interview to ABC News and another interview with The Washington Post. And this story has now gone viral on the internet.

In it, she says that you came to her in 1999, at a time when you were having an affair. She says you asked her, sir, to enter into an open marriage.

Would you like to take some time to respond to that?

GINGRICH: No, but I will. (APPLAUSE)

GINGRICH: I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that … Every person in here knows personal pain. Every person in here has had someone close to them go through painful things. To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary a significant question for a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine. (APPLAUSE)

KING: As you noted, Mr Speaker, this story did not come from our network. As you also know, it is a subject of conversation on the campaign. I’m not — I get your point. I take your point.

GINGRICH: John, John, it was repeated by your network. You chose to start the debate with it. Don’t try to blame somebody else. You and your staff chose to start this debate with it. (APPLAUSE)

The transcript doesn’t capture the full force, poise, authority and sheer aggro of Gingrich’s response. He won that debate in the first three minutes — and was not on top form thereafter, but didn’t need to be.The next day’s jump in his numbers would be attributed to his attack on the “elite” media. But it would be mad to attribute it to that alone. His response to King convinced a huge swathe of people, wavering on Romney, that Gingrich had the goods. The very judgment that had pushed them reluctantly to Romney — that he was the one who could beat Obama — pushed them to a sudden and decisive shift.

So now we are talking about a brokered convention — as, last week, your correspondent noted we might be. With the revision of the Iowa result in Rick Santorum’s favour, we now have an entirely different type of record — the first ever three-way split. Romney remains the favourite, but there are more than a dozen proportional primaries to go, in which Gingrich could amass delegates. He could take a couple of big winner-take-all states — in South Carolina, Gingrich won every demographic, men, women, independents, conservatives, every income band except the very rich, and every region of the state — except Charleston and Hilton Head, swing or Democrat regions.

Gingrich is primed, powerful, rested and ready. Most likely he won’t win Florida — too big, too moderate — but we said that about South Carolina. This thing is absolutely on, and it may well go all the way to the last primary — June 26, Utah, which may well be Mormon Mitt’s ace-in-the-hole … or his last stand.

Peter Fray

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