Heilemann: USS Gingrich Now Boarding in South Carolina

Gingrich in his element on the USS Yorktown. Photo: Richard Ellis/2012 Getty Images

Yesterday afternoon and evening, Impolitic attended his last two events of the South Carolina primary: a Mitt Romney rally at the Charleston Area Convention Center and a Newt Gingrich rally on the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier in the Charleston harbor. From their staging and attendance to the performances of the candidates, the events were a study in contrasts. And the differences between them tell you much about why, if the current polling and all the other evidence on the ground turns out to be indicative, Newt Gingrich is going to pull off a remarkable comeback and win tonight — and, in something like a heartbeat, turn the Republican nomination contest from a foregone conclusion into a wildly up-for-grabs dogfight.

The Romney event was, let's put it bluntly, a sad and stale affair. The sole deviation from Romney-campaign-rally s.o.p. was a live band, which as I arrived was plucking out a mournful version of a song that fit the man and moment a good deal too perfectly: "You Can't Always Get What You Want." For a final Charleston event before the primary, and one that included the presence of South Carolina governor and Romney endorser Nikki Haley, the crowd was pathetically small — maybe 200 people. Romney's speech was the same generic one he has been giving all through Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. Nothing about the event projected either confidence in winning or urgency about fending off Gingrich, and certainly nothing about it conveyed the impression that the man on stage is the national front-runner.

You knew the Gingrich event would be kinda special as you clambered aboard the big ship moored right across the bridge from Charleston in Mount Pleasant. The Yorktown was the sixth aircraft carrier to serve in the U.S. Navy, played a key role in the Pacific theater in World War II, and is now the centerpiece of the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum; in its hull there are antique fighter planes into whose cockpits you can climb and get your picture taken. Thus did the venue massage any number of Gingrichian G-spots: his history buffery, his martial enthusiasms, and his fetishism of big machines (especially those capable of inflicting hellacious damage).

Gingrich was plainly exhausted, but also evidently buoyed by his stunning surge in the previous 48 hours — from Rick Perry's exit and endorsement to the ripping off of John King's face in the debate on Thursday night. Early on in his speech, Gingrich cited a new Clemson University poll that showed him now six points ahead of Romney, 32–26. At the end of the speech he predicted that he would win, then added that, if he did, "Callista and I go to Florida where I think ... we'll win another decisive victory." And while skeptics will note that such expressions of brio aren't new for Gingrich — please recall him declaring in early December, before the roof caved in on him in Iowa, "I will be the nominee" — this time he seems on firmer footing. This morning, a new PPP poll shows his lead ballooning further to 37–28.

The Gingrich performance on the Yorktown was striking in other ways, too — especially as compared to that of Romney. For one thing, he offered an extended riff about the port of Charleston, his commitment to its modernization, and its pivotal place in the South Carolinian economy. This sort of localized message tailoring has been a consistent feature of Gingrich's campaigning style and nowhere more so than in South Carolina. It might sound basic, a Politics 101 thing, and that is true. But it is something that Romney rarely does or does effectively.

Another key and revealing moment last night came when Gingrich was confronted by a heckler who shouted out, “When will you release your ethics report?" — an apparent reference to Romney's call earlier in the day for Gingrich to put out the documents relating to a congressional investigation of him in the nineties. Gingrich got the same look in his eyes that filled them on Thursday night when King raised the open-marriage question at the debate: a mixture of glee and withering scorn. "Actually, if you would do a little research instead of shouting mindlessly, you would discover that the entire thing is available online in the Thomas system" — the online congressional database that Gingrich himself brought into existence as speaker in 1995 — "and you can print it out," he fired back. "I think it is 900 pages. When you get done reading it, let me know if there are any questions." The crowd cheered loudly and then Gingrich delivered the coup de grace: "I assume you're for the candidate who's afraid to release his income taxes."

Needless to say, this kind of spontaneity and forcefulness in the face of an unexpected challenge has not been Romney's forte. Indeed, he has faltered and stammered and looked woefully pained even in the face of questions that an 8-year-old would have seen coming from a city block away — such as King's at the debate regarding the number of years of tax returns he would eventually release.

God knows Newt Gingrich is a seriously flawed candidate. But his performance in South Carolina in the past week has been remarkable. It's sometimes pointed out (including by me) that South Carolina Republicans have generally favored the Establishment candidate over the insurgent: Dole over Buchanan in 1996, Bush over McCain in 2000, McCain over Huckabee in 2008. But Gingrich, as not just a former speaker but the man who engineered the first GOP House majority in 40 years, has plenty of Establishment bona fides, and way more conservative ones than Romney. And as his performance on the Yorktown showed, Gingrich is simply capable of being the bigger and stronger figure of the two — a pair of qualities that Palmetto State Republicans value enormously. By capitalizing on this potential and seizing the moment at two successive debates, Gingrich finally found his metier when he needed it most: with his back pressed against the wall.

If the polls prove accurate and he wins South Carolina, this combination of factors will help explain an outcome that seemed vastly improbable just a week ago. But, of course, it won't be the whole story — not even close. For as skillful as Gingrich's performance has been this week, Romney's has been screamingly lousy, bordering on disastrous. The implications of all this extend beyond South Carolina and even beyond Florida, which, again assuming Gingrich prevails today, is all but certain to be an epic and bloody battle. And I'll be turning to those implications tomorrow, once the full extent of the crumbling of the cookie that was Romney in South Carolina is revealed tonight.