01/21/2012 12:43 am ET Updated Jan 21, 2012

S.C. Primary: Newt Gingrich Looks To 'Make History'

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Newt Gingrich is feeling it. Having slugged his way to the lead for the second time, the former House speaker spies victory in South Carolina, a win he has said repeatedly will "make history" and, ultimately, hand him the Republican nomination for president.

The former boast seemed as fanciful as Gingrich's Mars program a week ago. Today, it's conventional wisdom.

In Orangeburg on Friday, speaking to a two-room overflow crowd in a shopping mall, Gingrich held up and knocked down the gallery of elitist thugs he holds responsible for the wayward course of America: "anti-religious judges," "academic journalists," bureaucrats, Hollywood and, of course, "Obama" -- Gingrich never calls him "President Obama."

And Juan Williams. Gingrich paused to take time to toy with Williams, the Fox commentator who last Monday -- in the pivotal moment of the campaign here -- had questioned whether Gingrich was seeking to "belittle people" by talking about the "food stamp president" and by suggesting that urban youths do janitorial work in schools.

Gingrich's sneering, "Well ... Juan," reply in that debate brought the crowd to its feet and launched him toward the lead. A much more sophisticated Southern strategy than the one employed by his party in the 1970s, it nevertheless imparted a simple message, that Gingrich is the candidate who can articulately and passionately channel your rage.

"The man is a figher," South Carolina House Speaker Bobby Harrell told a crowd of supporters in a hangar of the USS Yorktown Friday. "He doesn't back down and that's what we need in Washington."

Harrell had previously been a Rick Perry backer, he told the crowd. But after the Texas governor dropped out, he switched to Gingrich, rallied by his fierce debate performances.

As if constructing a metaphor for his own campaign, Gingrich's day began with a cancellation due to lack of public interest, veered into a bizarre and extended visit to a hospital's emergency department, and ended with a packed and energetic rally.

The mood couldn't have been more different for Mitt Romney, who'd hoped to come out of South Carolina with his third straight victory, but may improbably wind up instead with a record of 1-2, now that final vote tallies show he actually lost Iowa to Rick Santorum (who is still running, for what it's worth).

"When I was in Iowa, I joked that the corn counted as an amber wave of grain," Romney told a crowd of about 300 people, after he quoted "America the Beautiful" on Friday morning. "That may account for my slim, uh, defeat there. I used to say that accounted for an eight-point win, but I had to change my rhetoric in the last couple of days."

He dropped the joke from a speech in North Charleston in the afternoon. There's little to laugh about for the former Massachusetts governor, unless he's chuckling awkwardly after saying he'd "maybe" release more than one year of tax returns in April.

South Carolinians say their state picks presidents. Mitt Romney used to say so, too.

In South Carolina, six of the seven most recent surveys conducted this week now show Gingrich running slightly ahead of Romney, evidence of a collapse for the record books. The just-released Clemson University Palmetto Poll, conducted on Wednesday and Thursday nights, shows Gingrich leading Romney by a 32 to 26 percent margin, with Ron Paul and Rick Santorum running far behind (at 11 percent and 9 percent, respectively).

The HuffPost Pollster chart, based on all available public polls, shows a 13 percentage point jump for Gingrich in the last week. He now runs ahead of Romney by nearly five points (33.9 to 29.0 percent), followed by Paul running a distant third (at 13.9 percent).

The chart also shows support for Santorum plummeting about as much as support for Gingrich has increased, from a high of more than 22 percent just after the Iowa caucuses to just 8.4 percent now.

The latest Public Policy Polling survey found, for example, that Santorum supporters choose Gingrich more often than Romney as their second choice (40 to 24 percent).

On Friday, Romney began to seriously dial back expectations. He said that he had an "uphill battle" in South Carolina anyway, because Gingrich is from the neighboring state, and that it's more important to win delegates, who will make the eventual choice at the Republican National Convention in August should the race still be undecided.

"I want as many delegates as I can get -- I want the most delegates coming out of South Carolina," he told reporters in Gilbert. "But I don’t know what the numbers will be."

Former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, a chief Romney surrogate, made the same effort on Friday, telling reporters he expects a "long slog."

That long slog could drag all the way to Tampa, Fla., where Republicans will hold their political convention. As long as Ron Paul continues pulling significant support, and a conservative alternative remains viable -- which, in the age of Citizens United, means having just one deep-pocketed casino mogul, for instance -- it'll be difficult for any one candidate to lock up a majority of delegates.

That could mean a "brokered convention," where a candidate is chosen by party elites behind closed doors. It could be anybody. "I've been talking quietly to the most powerful, I think, conservative movers-and-shakers in Washington over the past couple weeks, trying to get their read," MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, a former congressman, said Friday. "Every single one I've spoken to is trying to figure out a way to get to a brokered convention." (Of course, movers and shakers would enjoy a brokered convention because they'd be the ones doing the brokering.)

Whatever the outcome Saturday evening, it's clear that it won't be the knockout blow Romney had hoped to deliver before turning his attention to President Obama. Instead, he'll limp to Florida, where he and his super PAC have been plastering television sets with ads long before other candidates were able to get up and running.

Florida's primary, the Tuesday after next, will be followed Feb. 4 by a caucus in Nevada. A month later is Super Tuesday.

If Romney loses Saturday, it'll also be a stinging rebuke to South Carolina's Tea Party-backed governor, Nikki Haley. Campaigning with Romney Friday, she was off her game. "This current president wants to weaken our military, and President Obama wants to strengthen our military and will never apologize for it," Haley said, according to a Patch report.

"Oh, no. McCain did that two weeks ago, and I just turned 40 today," she said.

Jon Ward and Howard Fineman contributed reporting