Whatever Newt Gingrich was doing, it wasn't a serious presidential campaign. He wasn't a manager ready to wage a realistic underdog bid for the White House, but rather a political dilettante treating the campaign trail like it was another round of Sunday morning talk shows.
At least, that was the conventional wisdom about the former House Speaker for months.
But Gingrich's campaign sure didn't look like a gadfly candidacy on Saturday night in Columbia. With more than a thousand supporters packed and overflowing a Hilton in the downtown of South Carolina's capital, flanked by Congressmen and state officials to celebrate his stunning victory in the state's primary.
Most of his supporters were in agreement that night—it was Gingrich's deftness in the televised debates which made the difference, particularly his furious response to questions in a CNN debate regarding allegations from his ex-wife Marianne that he wanted an open marriage between her and his current wife, Calista. His thunderous response—capping off one of the craziest days in campaign history—brought the audience to their feet, and South Carolinians to the polls.
"The debate was huge," says Jim Ulmer, a GOP county official from nearby Orangeburg county. And the numbers tend to back that up—according to CBS exit polls, two thirds of voters said the debates were "very important" to their decision. Gingrich aides and supporters also said Romney's waffling on the tax issue mad him vulnerable.
"He walked out of that debate with a crisis of credibility," says Col. Michael Steele, a Gingrich supporter. "It wasn't the issues, it was the way he stumbled and fumbled on the issues."
It's leading many to wonder if the rules of the game have changed. In today's media-saturated age—when supporters can literally watch an inspiring speech or debate put-down in the palm of their hands—is a dazzling personality enough to overcome advertising, endorsements, and the other traditional building blocks of politics? Richard Peterson, a South Carolina Gingrich supporter who worked at the Republican National Committee under Lee Atwater, the legendary Republican consultant who's known for writing the book on modern GOP campaigning, says Gingrich's victory shows that paid media can't compete with a good debate performance anymore.
"It allows him to demonstrate his intelligence in a way that a canned 30-second ad can't," says Peterson.
In the end, Romney's dollars may have ended up hurting him. Overwhelmed voters were turned off by endless robocalls and flyers.
Supporters hope the momentum of this win can boost him into Florida, and that campaign dollars will start to flow and allow him to challenge Romney's campaign, which boasts that it was built for the long haul. And he'll have to contend not only with Romney, but with establishment officials within the Republican Party, convinced that a Gingrich candidacy, against Obama, would be suicidal.
Gingrich supporters in South Carolina also claim that Romney was guilty of laziness—resting on millions in advertising and endorsements from key state officials, including Gov. Nikki Haley, while letting personal appearances slip by. Many were gleeful that Haley, a Tea Party star who's seen her brightness dim in the state recently, saw her endorsement of Romney go up in flames.
Romney still has many advantages heading into the next few contests. Florida, which holds its primary on January 31, is favorable terrain for the Massachusetts governor—especially since retirees may have already sent in their absentee ballots. As the states get bigger, Romney's financial advantage will become more powerful. But he'll be facing the one thing he dreaded: a two-person contrast against someone who excites the passions of conservative voters.