COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Newt Gingrich sauntered into an art gallery an hour from here Tuesday morning, fresh off his self-proclaimed historic debate performance the night before.
A decent-sized but not capacity crowd waited in the main hall of the gallery. As he entered with his wife Callista, some voters chanted his name: "Newt, Newt, Newt."
Gingrich looked at one of the most vocal people in the front row of chairs and smirked: "You are probably my grandmother's worst nightmare."
He paused, and then divulged, almost as an afterthought, what his grandmother had told him: "She said, 'Don't draw attention to yourself.'"
It was a remarkable comment, for the simple reason that Gingrich's entire candidacy, much like his entire life, has been driven by a total inability to follow his grandmother's advice.
The former House speaker from Georgia has survived multiple brushes with an end to his candidacy in the past year, in large part because of his unique capability to say outrageous things in ways that people have never heard them presented. He confounds and angers his enemies, intrigues the impartial, and captures the hearts of supporters.
And this past week, as Gingrich has confronted what he has admitted is a do or die moment in the Palmetto State primary, he has actually centered his campaign around his Babe Ruth-like political abilities. He is swinging for the fences.
Gingrich's eye-popping, racially charged confrontation with Juan Williams in Monday night's debate was Exhibit A of the Gingrich way. It also showed how, as one Gingrich aide put it, he steps onto the debate stage aware that he is in his element and "lets it rip."
But Gingrich's impulsive and spontaneous nature, though brilliant at times -- and always in the spotlight -- also leads him astray. A day after the momentum-creating exchange with Williams, that same Gingrich aide listened with evident surprise and concern Tuesday night as he was informed that Gingrich had once again attacked GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney's private equity career.
Now, with just two days before South Carolina's primary, Gingrich is trying to ride his unpredictable talents to an upset of the man who is his polar opposite: Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.
Gingrich casts his razor-blade wit and verbal combat abilities as a boldness that would best match up against President Barack Obama in a general election, especially in debates.
But the Romney campaign moved Wednesday to push Gingrich's outsized personality fully into the spotlight, and argued that when examined from every angle, there are more downsides than upsides.
"Yes, he can say exciting things," said former Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo), who served with Gingrich in the House. "He also says things which undermine the conservative movement and he says them in outrageous and destructive ways."
Talent and another Gingrich-era member of the House, former Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.), spent 20 minutes on a conference call with reporters describing how loose a cannon Gingrich is: he undercut the Republican Medicare reform push in the spring, he promoted global warming legislation in 2008, and he was so controversial as speaker that he helped President Bill Clinton get reelected.
The Romney campaign focused on Gingrich's professional life, but the subtext was the personal. Criticisms of his political reliability undoubtedly remind listeners of Gingrich's marital infidelities.
And sure enough, Gingrich's messy personal life burst into the open late Wednesday, with a red-letter headline on the Drudge Report screaming of an explosive interview with Gingrich's second wife, Marianne, that was on the way to ABC's programming. By the end of the day, ABC officials said the interview would be broadcast Thursday evening.
Another debate Thursday night in Charleston, the 17th of this primary, had figured to be Gingrich's chance to hit another grand slam, and could still be. But the infidelity issue will now hang over Gingrich and exert negative momentum against his push for a stunning win.
Romney's aides say it will not be an upset if Gingrich wins in South Carolina Saturday, pointing out Romney's loss here in 2008 and the state's electoral makeup, which is more hospitable to a Catholic from the South than a Mormon from the Northeast.
But Romney has held a double-digit lead in the polls for two weeks, ever since Gingrich cratered after surging to a lead in early December. And he won the first two primary states: Iowa and New Hampshire, though his eight-vote victory in Iowa could be reversed if certified results to be released Thursday morning show that former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa) was in fact the winner.
Still, even as Romney campaign aides sought Wednesday to take down Gingrich as they did in Iowa, they were not without their own problems.
Romney has been plagued by the revelation this week that most of his income is taxed at 15 percent -- lower than many middle-class families -- because of investments that have been taxed at the capital gains rate. And his indecisive, muddled response to calls o release his tax returns has been even more harmful.
During Romney's third rally of the day Wednesday, in a northwest suburb of Columbia, a top aide stood in the back of a gymnasium, surrounded by reporters who, rather than listening to Romney's speech, peppered the adviser with questions about why Romney would not just release his tax returns now instead of in April.
The aide tried to wave off the inquisition: "More people are interested in like, fluoridation of water than this issue, than something like this."
"It's going to be 1.7 million Americans out of work is what this issue's about, what this race is about," said the Romney adviser, who did not want to be quoted by name. "You don't hear Americans asking about this."
But increasingly the press has been asking about it, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry -– the subject of rumors that he would drop out of the race on Wednesday -- called on Romney to release his tax returns before Thursday's debate.
Romney took another punch when ABC News reported that he has parked as much as $8 million in offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands.
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