Matt Rourke, Associated Press
COLUMBIA, S.C. — To say Newt Gingrich capped an extraordinary comeback with a South Carolina victory doesn't quite capture what happened.
It was more like vindication.
The former House speaker came from behind to overtake Mitt Romney on Saturday in a state that for decades has chosen the eventual Republican nominee. On the way there, Gingrich triumphed over months of campaign turmoil and at least two political near-death experiences as well as millions of dollars of attack advertisements and potentially damning personal allegations.
He did it by finding his voice and rallying conservatives with a populist defiance.
"The American people feel that they have elites who have been trying to force us to stop being Americans," Gingrich told cheering supporters in Columbia after he was declared the victor. "It's not that I am a good debater. It's that I articulate the deepest-felt values of the American people."
It was on the debate stage that the pugnacious Gingrich arguably revived his presidential campaign, not once but twice in the past year, by giving a tea party-infused GOP exactly what it's hungering for — a no-holds-barred attack dog willing to go after President Barack Obama with abandon. If Gingrich wins the nomination, his confrontational attitude against all things Obama likely will be a big reason Republicans choose him over chief rival Romney.
Gingrich, a political strategist in his own right who has a knack for understanding precisely what the GOP electorate wants, has aggressively taken it to Obama since the moment he entered the race last spring determined to turn his nationwide grass-roots network of support that he's cultivated for a decade into a front-running White House campaign.
But he stumbled early, including by disparaging the House Republicans' Medicare proposal as "right-wing social engineering" and was all but forced to apologize after the conservative outcry. His campaign nearly imploded over strategy squabbles, with virtually his entire senior staff abandoning him before the summer even began. And he was broke after spending lavishly.
Gingrich spent the next six months running his own campaign on a shoestring. The former college professor used a series of debates in the fall — and the free media they afforded him — to show Republican voters his political and oratory skills. Their adoration ended up catapulting him back into contention in Iowa. He vowed to stay positive and focus on Obama — even as his rivals, sensing a very real threat, went on the attack with a barrage of negative TV advertising.
His rivals and allied groups — primarily the pro-Romney Restore Our Future political action committee and Texas Rep. Ron Paul — castigated him for a tumultuous speakership and career in Washington after Congress, knocking him way off course and nearly bludgeoning him to political death.
It turned out Gingrich didn't have the money to respond on TV. And his standing slid as the new year began, and he ended up coming in a distant fourth place in the leadoff caucuses on Jan. 3.
He was but an afterthought in the next state to vote, New Hampshire, where he spent a full week on the attack against Romney while complaining about the beating he took in Iowa on the air. But the cash-strapped Gingrich didn't have money to take his criticism of Romney to the TV airwaves. He seemed completely off his game, losing big in the first-in-the-nation primary state.
Then Sheldon Adelson came to the rescue.
The billionaire casino magnate and longtime Gingrich backer ponied up at least $5 million for an outside group — made up of former Gingrich aides — to help put his buddy back in the game. It wasn't long before the group — Winning Our Future — was exacting payback on Romney for his allies pummeling Gingrich in Iowa. And the group started raising questions about Romney's time at the helm of a private equity firm, Bain Capital, putting Romney on the defensive for the first time during the campaign.
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