Gingrich, by contrast, was on fire in South Carolina, and not just at the debates. His final event on the night before the primary, a rally aboard the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier in Charleston Harbor, included an encounter with a heckler who shouted out, “When will you release your ethics report?”—from a congressional investigation of Gingrich in the nineties.
Gingrich replied with a spontaneity and forcefulness as foreign to Romney as Urdu. “Actually, if you’d do a little research instead of shouting mindlessly, you’d discover the entire thing is available online in the Thomas system”—the online congressional database Gingrich brought into existence as Speaker of the House 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 grâce: “I assume you’re for the candidate who’s afraid to release his income taxes.”
But Gingrich wasn’t merely a superior performer to Romney on the stump. With his hot-eyed imprecations against Obama, his race-freighted mugging of Fox News’s Juan Williams at the debate in Myrtle Beach, his unbridled (if theatrical and hypocritical) enmity toward the media and East Coast elites more broadly, and his relentless ideological attacks on his rival as a timid “Massachusetts moderate,” he was far more deeply in sync with the raging id of the party’s ascendant populist wing.
The coalescence of the various elements of that wing around Gingrich accounted for the 40 to 28 percent pistol-whipping he administered to Romney on Primary Day—and marked the sharpening of the shirts-skins schism that would play out from then on. According to the exit polls, Gingrich captured 45 percent (to Romney’s 21) of Evangelical voters, 48 percent (to 21) of strong tea-party supporters, and 47 percent (to 22) of non–college graduates. Romney, meanwhile, held his own with the groups making up what the journalist Ron Brownstein has dubbed the GOP’s “managerial wing”—richer, better-educated, less godly, more pragmatic voters. One trouble for Romney was that this assemblage constitutes less than half his party now. But even more disconcerting was that he lost badly to Gingrich among South Carolinians who said that the most crucial candidate quality was the ability to beat Obama—which suggested not simply that ideology trumped electability but that for many Republicans, hard-core conservative ideology was tantamount to electability.
Thus did Romney find himself facing his first existential peril. The influential conservative blogger Erik Erickson, on the grounds that South Carolina represented less an embrace of Gingrich than a grassroots rejection of the front-runner, his themeless pudding of a campaign, and the Establishment support of it, encouraged Romney to “refine his message, not sharpen his knives” as the race moved to Florida. But that suggestion would be rejected—with huge consequences for Gingrich, Romney, and even Santorum.
An hour or so after the Republican debate in Jacksonville on January 26, Romney’s chief strategist, Stuart Stevens, was in the spin room employing his iPad as a weapon. Stevens asked if I knew how many times Gingrich was mentioned in Reagan’s memoir. Calling up the text onscreen and searching the document, he revealed the answer: zero. Stevens then asked the same about a different memoir—Jack Abramoff’s. Here the number of mentions was larger: thirteen. Stevens asked, “What does that tell you?” I ventured, “That Newt is full of shit?” Stevens: “You said it, buddy.”
Stevens’s parlor trick was a minor, albeit delightful, element of the two-front assault waged by Team Romney on Gingrich in Florida: strafing him from the air with negative ads and badgering him on the ground, which involved not only working the press but sending operatives to Gingrich’s every event to offer instant rebuttals. One objective here was to refute Gingrich’s claims to being at once instrumental to the Reagan Revolution and a Washington outsider; another was to rattle him, to piss him off, to get inside his head.
Together with two stellar debate showings by Romney, the anti-Newt incursion accomplished all that and more, driving Gingrich to fits of defensive distraction, undisguised irritation, and an in toto effort in Florida that was every bit as feeble as his South Carolina bid had been robust. And in its indiscipline, lassitude, and wackiness—how many news cycles did he squander on that freaking lunar colony?—it made manifest why he was never a plausible Republican nominee. But while Gingrich today seems an afterthought, his role in shaping the contours of the contest cannot be overstated.
“Of all the candidates, he has had the biggest impact,” says Steve Schmidt, McCain’s 2008 chief strategist. “By making the case he made against Romney, Gingrich did a significant amount of damage to him, both in the primary and in the general, if Romney does become the nominee.”