This week, as the 2012 race for the GOP nomination swung into South Carolina for its "First in the South" primary, things seemed to come in pairs.
After long campaigns, two men -- Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry -- quit the race. There were two debates, each full of fireworks lobbed at noticeably amped-up crowds. At those debates, two veteran journalists -- Juan Williams and John King -- were emasculated by a vengeful Newt Gingrich. Gingrich was responding as one of the two candidates who spent the week in the hot seat: Mitt Romney for his dodgy responses to the demands that he disclose his tax records, Gingrich for new(ish) allegations lobbed at him by his ex-wife Marianne. (Which had to do with Newt's alleged desire to have an "open marriage"...with two ladies.)
And as Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Romney contended with the issues of the week, it became clear that the result of the South Carolina primary might hang on which man handled his controversy the best. As Jonathan Chait explains in his "Tale Of Two (!) Evasions":
Thursday night’s debate was defined by two questions, by the two current leading contenders, each of whom was attempting to define an uncomfortable line of inquiry as off limits. Newt Gingrich crushed his answer. Mitt Romney flubbed his.
Predictably, Gingrich's first question concerned his second wife’s claim that he had asked her permission to openly conduct affairs, and Newt replied with a categorical denial combined with a scolding of the media for stooping to the gutter. It was probably a lie, almost certainly misleading, and without question flagrantly hypocritical. (You can make a decent case that we should ignore politicians’ private behavior, but this is a man who led the impeachment of a president over an affair.) But it worked perfectly, because Gingrich simply took a firm line and refused to waver, and attacked a the GOP's common enemy (the media).
It offered a sharp contrast with Romney’s key moment, later in the debate, when he wavered over the release of his taxes.
Romney was actually booed by the audience, as if he'd simply told them he was an out-and-proud gay soldier serving his country with honor in Afghanistan. And this was despite the fact that his answer on this occasion was actually substantially better than the lengthy helping of word soup he offered in Myrtle Beach.
Of course, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul were on that stage as well, and the irony was that they had to work harder to get attention because neither man had a controversy du jour that brought the spotlight in their direction. It mattered less for Paul, as his campaign hasn't been competing heavily in South Carolina. Instead, Paul spent four days this week away from the campaign trail -- in part because he returned to Washington to cast a symbolic vote, but largely because the stakes for him aren't as high at the moment. South Carolina doesn't figure in to his long-game, work-the-caucuses strategy, and when all is said and done, he's likely to pull an impressive enough portion of the primary vote, relative to someone who didn't put up much of an effort.
For Santorum, the stakes are significantly higher. This week, after a long recount process, he was able to claim victory in the Iowa caucuses. On top of that, an emergency confab of social conservatives ended up anointing Santorum as their champion. But would these newly won benefits be enough to propel Santorum into the winners circle in the Palmetto State -- or even goose his chances down the road? And would Santorum's subtle effectiveness shine as brightly as the sparks flying from Newt and Mitt's clashes with crisis?
In the end, South Carolina looks like it's coming down to one of two outcomes: Romney weathers his income tax storm, wins the primary, and continues on like a juggernaut, or Gingrich's raging passions win over the GOP tribe, sends him to victory and -- as Sarah Palin desired -- the race gets extended. Gingrich is suddenly he favorite to win the primary this weekend. But beyond South Carolina, there's evidence that come next week, there could be a whole new race -- according to Gallup Editor-in-chief Frank Newport, Romney's support nationwide is in a state of collapse.
Naturally, this would have to happen in the same week where one of your Speculatroners rather confidently made the case that Romney had reclaimed inevitability. It just goes to show that the moment you make a prediction is the moment you'd best be prepared to be wrong. Want to take a shot at predicting the future for us? By all means, have at it, and for the rest of the week that was, please feel free to enter the Speculatron for the week of January 20, 2012.
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