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Mitt Romney's South Carolina Nightmare: What Keeps Him Up Late

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MITT ROMNEY SOUTH CAROLINA
Mitt Romney campaigns at Wofford College in South Carolina on Jan. 18, 2012. | AP

ROCK HILL, S.C. -- Mitt Romney and his team left nothing to chance here on Wednesday, and it's a good thing, because they are looking over their shoulder at a Newt Gingrich who not only isn't dead but still has an outside chance to pull off a huge surprise in the South Carolina primary.

Tuesday, Romney's advance team fell down and delivered him to an embarrassingly empty ballroom. The TV pictures were devastating.

Wednesday, here at Winthrop University, the Romneyites assembled a crowd of more than 1,000, complete with energetic college kids and suburbanites from Greater Charlotte.

"This looks like an actual presidential campaign event," said a veteran political reporter from one of the networks.

Meanwhile, word is that the Romney side has bought a last-minute inventory of TV airtime for 60-second spots -- presumably to attack Newt, who remains poised, like a drafting NASCAR driver, to make a last-minute move, pushed by his debate performances and his overall feisty demeanor.

And here is the nightmare scenario for Mitt: Iowa officials on Thursday will certify their official caucus results. In theory, Romney could lose his eight-vote victory there. It remains possible that Gingrich will catch him or at least come very close here in South Carolina. If both those things happen, we could be in for a very long campaign.

Other candidates are losing steam.

Rick Santorum is slowly dropping in the polls and not making the sale here despite endorsements from pastors. The Southern white working class this year cares less about culture than jobs, taxes and what they regard as government mismanagement.

Rumors flew Wednesday -- and were quickly denied -- that Rick Perry will drop out at any moment.

Which leaves seemingly indestructible Newt, who has already been written off three times in this presidential campaign and who is still in the game.

Gingrich's durability is a testament to three things: his gamecock-like clawing and scratching resilience (they like that kind of thing here); his willingness to indirectly touch the nerve of race (which conservative voters here like not because of race per se, but because to them it's a test of a politician's willingness to take on the feds and political correctness); and Romney's failure to connect with the base in any place other than his second home of New Hampshire.

Also, Newt is a Southerner, and that matters in South Carolina.

At the rally in Rock Hill, Romney attacked Gingrich as a foe of free enterprise. With another debate Thursday and voting on Saturday, it is going to be a very long 72 hours for the former governor of Massachusetts and would-be president of the United States.

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