South Carolina Will Set the Speed for GOP Nomination
"If I had to vote in South Carolina, in order to keep this thing going, I would vote for Newt and I would want this to continue -- more debates, more vetting of candidates, because we know the mistake made in our country four years ago was having a candidate who was not vetted to the degree he should have been."
-- Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin on "Hannity."
If Newt Gingrich were to win Saturday's South Carolina primary, he would have 29 delegates, nearly twice the number that seemingly inevitable frontrunner Mitt Romney has accrued in his Iowa tie and New Hampshire blowout.
Of course, delegate counts don't matter so much now. There won't be enough delegates available until nearly May for anyone to officially clinch the nomination with 1,144. What counts is momentum. Not only do committed partisans like to be on the winning team, but successive victories by a frontrunner send voters and camera crews scuttling away.
Rudy Giuliani was right about Florida in late 2007 when he planned to build his firewall there, but Florida's electorate had changed by the time the primary arrived on Jan. 29, 2008.
After John McCain's wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina, many of the more moderate voters and northeastern transplants who made Florida very favorable ground for America's Mayor lost interest in the race and weren't motivated to go help Giuliani. Meanwhile, partisans interested primarily in winning the general election had seen the race shift from being a contest between Giuliani, McCain and Fred Thompson to being a race between McCain, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney. That choice made nominating McCain seem like a much more urgent task.
With McCain being chased by previously little-known candidates, Republicans began to feel like they needed to hurry up and protect their remaining candidate who had a big, national brand. Plus, the conventional wisdom of the day was that Democrats were doing themselves real damage with the fight between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as feminists and black Democrats clashed over whose time had come.
It was ugly stuff, especially with race cards flying like a game of social justice "Go Fish" in South Carolina. Republicans recoiled from the idea of doing the same thing.
But this year is very different.
Nobody imagined that the top two challengers to Mitt Romney heading into South Carolina would be the 68-year-old former speaker of the House and a social conservative crusading former Pennsylvania senator who got drubbed six years ago in his last re-election bid.
The unlikely nature of his challengers helps Romney since it is hard for Republicans to imagine either Gingrich or Rick Santorum as their standard bearer. Romney is most helped, though, by the fact that there are two Not Romneys (conservative voters seeming to have agreed that the gaffe-prone Rick Perry is too risky a choice).
Even half of the Santorum vote in South Carolina shifting to Gingrich might be enough to put Gingrich over the top for an upset.
Gingrich is now making this argument explicitly, saying that a vote for Santorum, Perry or even Texas Rep. Ron Paul is a vote for Romney. That's true. But a vote for a Not Romney other than Gingrich would also be a vote to wrap up the Republican nominating process right now.
A win by Romney in South Carolina would set up a Florida coronation on Jan. 31. Conversely, a win by Gingrich in South Carolina would substantially reset the race. Do most Republicans want, like 2012 vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin, to keep the contest going or do they want to batten down the hatches and start exchanging general-election broadsides with President Obama?
Maybe it's not so bad to keep going. Democrats didn't suffer for their 2008 Clinton-Obama grudge match, and unlike 2008, the top Republican challenger to the frontrunner is a well-known national figure. Plus, many Republicans fear the moment when the national press shifts its focus from the GOP intramurals to the GOP versus Obama.
On the other hand, Republicans have not very much enjoyed the process so far. Having seen frontrunners laid low by self-inflicted wounds and Republican-on-Republican verbal violence, many are eager to see the whole affair ended. Seeing Romney jabbed for his work as a corporate restructuring whiz at Bain Capital or forced to admit that he pays a lower tax rate than Warren Buffett's secretary makes Republicans cringe.
But so far none of the attacks on Romney have been anything that Democrats won't do, or are already doing. Nothing has yet been said or done that can't be unsaid or undone if Romney is the nominee. It's hard to imagine Gingrich embracing Romney, but, then again, it would have been hard to imagine Hillary Clinton being Obama's willing subordinate.
Obama is tacking to the center and has seen his job approval rating return to their normal range in the upper 40s. With guaranteed ballot competition from libertarians and the online Americans Elect, its now easy to see Obama's path to a narrow reelection.
South Carolina voters will decide on Saturday whether that contest begins now or this spring.
And Now, A Word From Charles
"Gingrich I think overestimates in the claim he would be the best candidate in the general election. He overestimates the importance of debate in the general election. It's been extremely important up until now in this race. We have had 16 of them and they shape the whole campaign.
"They debate in October. There will be three debates at the end, an hour-and-a-half. They're rarely decisive. He may win in a debate, but the question is who will win in the election?"
Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as digital politics editor based in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he authors the daily "Fox News First" political news note and hosts "Power Play," a feature video series, on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on the network, including "The Kelly File," "Special Report with Bret Baier," and "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace." He also provides expert political analysis for Fox News coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.