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.
When the race turned to South Carolina, it didn't take long for Gingrich— a former Georgia congressman — to hit his stride. The state had always been a campaign firewall for him. He had visited often, built his biggest staff of any of the first three early-voting states and spent $2.5 million on advertising.
Over the past 10 days, he raised questions about Romney's private business experience while Winning Our Future reinforced the message by financing millions of dollars in South Carolina advertising characterizing Romney as a corporate predator who dismantled companies while running Bain Capital. Gingrich also started working to undercut Romney's strength — the notion that the former Massachusetts governor was the Republicans' best chance to beat Obama in the fall.
"What you are seeing him doing is convincing people first that he can win," senior Gingrich adviser David Winston explained at one point. "He's in the process of crossing that threshold."
It was his performance in two debates last week that may have helped him seal the deal with undecided Republicans who were questioning his viability as a candidate.
He turned his vulnerabilities — a comment some interpreted as racist and an allegation by an ex-wife that he had wanted an "open marriage" — into moments of strength by answering questions about those issues with nothing short of a character assassination on the national media. In both instances, he clearly tickled his conservative audience — many of whom are skeptical of a media industry they view as left-leaning.
In Myrtle Beach last Monday, Gingrich lashed out when FOX News Juan Williams had asked him if comments he made urging poor minority children to work as janitors were racially insensitive.
"The fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history," Gingrich retorted — and then turned up the intensity.
His voice rose and he jabbed a finger into the podium as he said: "I believe every American of every background has been endowed by their creator with the right to pursue happiness. And if that makes liberals unhappy, I'm going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job, and learn some day to own the job."
The clip became the heart of Gingrich's final television ad in South Carolina, and won high praise from supporters at the barbecue joints and sportsmen's clubs he visited in the campaign's closing days.
But three days later, Gingrich had what seemed like a problem on his hands.
An ex-wife, Marianne Gingrich, did an interview with ABC News in which she said Gingrich had asked her to allow him to have a mistress while they were married. It was unclear how the allegation would play in a Baptist state where many in the GOP electorate call themselves evangelical.
Gingrich ended up using the allegation to his advantage on a debate stage in Charleston, when CNN moderator John King opened the candidate face-off by asking Gingrich about his ex-wife's claim.
"Every person in here knows personal pain. Every person in here has had someone close to them go through painful things," an indigent Gingrich said. "To take an ex-wife and make it, two days before the primary, a significant question for a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine."
The audience roared and rose to its feet.
Several things also fell Gingrich's way.
Romney's personal wealth was thrust into the spotlight as he stumbled over whether — and then eventually when — he would release his tax returns. Gingrich pounced, suggesting Romney may have something to hide that could pose a liability against Obama. Romney also took a hit when the Iowa GOP declared that Rick Santorum, not Romney had won the leadoff caucuses.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry also quit the race two days before the primary and endorsed Gingrich. And evangelical conservatives in the state largely ignored the pleas of national Christian leaders who had voted to endorse Santorum and started coalescing behind Gingrich, the only other candidate in the race fighting over the support of the right flank.
In the end, South Carolina Republican strategist Chip Felkel said: "His supporters were fired up, and it's contagious, especially given Romney's failure to generate that kind of enthusiasm."
The coming weeks will determine whether Gingrich can stay on top this time.