Newt Gingrich insisted that his victory in the South Carolina primary was an act of defiance of the nation's elites. In his victory speech, Gingrich called it a victory for those "who feel that the elites in Washington and New York have no understanding, no care, no concern, no reliability, and in fact do not represent them at all."
Gingrich? An anti-establishment outsider? He's the ultimate Washington insider -- a career politician who rose to become Speaker of the House. Later, he grew rich on his Washington connections.
Gingrich was right in one sense. He did defy the Republican Party establishment. Mitt Romney's their man. Nearly the whole GOP establishment has endorsed Romney, including the governor of South Carolina. On NBC's Meet the Press, Gingrich called Romney an "establishment candidate," while he described himself as a "Reagan populist conservative."
South Carolina is the Republican base. It has always voted for the establishment candidate -- Bob Dole over Pat Buchanan in 1996, George W. Bush over John McCain in 2000. What this year's South Carolina Republican primary proves is that the GOP's conservative base is in revolt. They refuse to have Romney pushed down their throats. In South Carolina, the Tea Party found its voice in the presidential campaign.
Gingrich's big breakthrough was to make himself look electable to South Carolina Republicans. Gingrich? Electable? He sure doesn't look electable to the party establishment.
Nearly half the voters in the South Carolina primary said they wanted a candidate who could beat President Obama. Electability was a bigger factor in South Carolina than in Iowa or New Hampshire. In Iowa and New Hampshire, Republican voters looking for a winner went strongly for Romney. In South Carolina, a majority of them voted for Gingrich.
That was Gingrich's big breakthrough. In Iowa, only 20% of those looking for someone to beat Obama voted for Gingrich. In New Hampshire, 12%. In South Carolina, a whopping 51%!
What made Gingrich suddenly look electable in South Carolina? Two things:
First, Gingrich showed fight. That happened in the debates. According to the exit poll, the more the debates mattered, the more you voted for Gingrich. "What they saw in the debate from Newt was that he was willing to take on the media. That gives us a sense that he might be willing to take on the Washington establishment," Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), the patron saint of the Tea Party movement, said on CNN's "State of the Union."
Primaries are dominated by partisans. Partisans are fans. Fans want a fighter who stands up to his opponent. Gingrich called his South Carolina victory "an opportunity to nominate a genuine conservative who can debate and who can take it to Barack Obama." As Howard Dean once said, "Yeeeaaah!"
Romney did not show fight in the debates. When challenged to release his tax returns, he mumbled and fumbled and searched for an excuse, as some in the audience booed. Gingrich didn't even try to explain his callous behavior toward his former wife. He knew the best defense is a good offense. He used the question as a pretext to launch an attack on the news media, the hereditary enemy of conservatives.
That was the second reason why Gingrich came out looking more electable. Romney suddenly looked vulnerable. Romney's wealth, his business practices and his evasiveness about them made him look like an easy target for Democrats. The whole argument for Romney's campaign is electability. Conservatives may not like or trust Romney, but they were told at least he can beat Obama. Now they're not so sure.
The 2012 Republican race is likely to turn into a marathon. Will that harm the party's chances? The 2008 Democratic marathon between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton didn't seem to do much damage. It made Obama look stronger. He defeated the fearsome Clinton machine.
But there's one big difference between the Democrats in 2008 and the Republicans in 2012. In '08, Democrats liked both candidates and would have happily voted for either one. This year, establishment Republicans don't like or trust Gingrich and the conservative base doesn't like or trust Romney. It's a split that may not be so quick to heal.