"Every person in here knows personal pain. Every person in here has had someone close to them go through painful things. To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary a significant question in a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine."
-- Newt Gingrich's rejoinder to a question from CNN anchor John King about allegations by the former House speaker's second wife.
The stakes have gone way up in South Carolina.
When he was fresh off his win in New Hampshire and with a trio of squabbling Not Romneys dividing up conservative votes, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney looked bound for glory. That's not so clear anymore.
Think of it this way: A week ago, Romney was the first non-incumbent Republican in the modern era to win the first two nominating contests, Iowa and New Hampshire, and was toting a double-digit lead into South Carolina, where primary voters have confirmed the party's nominee in every contest since 1980 and, where, until just a few months ago, Romney was barely putting up a fight.
Today, less than 24 hours from the vote, that's all changed.
Romney had to quasi-concede the Iowa caucuses to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. The New Hampshire momentum petered out and Romney is in a statistical dead heat in South Carolina polls with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Texas Gov. Rick Perry made a graceful exit from the race, throwing his support and his Christian forgiveness to Gingrich, leaving the Not Romney vote divided two ways instead of three. And South Carolinians are seriously considering casting aside their traditional role of confirmer to embrace a new status in the Republican nominating process: reset button.
Here are three scenarios for Saturday's Palmetto Stakes:
Scenario One: Romney Squeaks By
Finishing Order: Romney, Gingrich, Paul, Santorum
Most of Perry's votes had already gone to Gingrich, but the devout Texan's endorsement on Thursday still packs a punch. Perry gave his personal blessing to Gingrich, despite the former speaker's past failings. Like the almost kind words from Sarah Palin, Perry's expression of grace will go a long way to absolve serious Christians of their concerns about Gingrich on a day when his second wife was trying to destroy his candidacy by again accusing him of having been a creep who wanted to have a mistress.
(By the way, where was the bombshell that ABC said would rock the GOP race?)
But, the very fact that Perry and others have to express absolution is trouble for Gingrich. In the CNN debate on Thursday, Santorum repeatedly questioned Gingrich's character and fitness to lead. He wasn't saying anything about affairs or open marriages, but he was presenting himself as the self-denying Brutus to Gingrich's Antony nibbling grapes on Cleopatra's barge.
These doubts, well seeded late in the game in South Carolina, may be enough to smother the new Newtness and allow Romney to escape with a narrow win. That's not as good as a blowout, but it is enough to keep the inevitability train rolling down to Florida for Romney.
But the second-place finish would be empowering to Gingrich, especially if he is close to Romney but far in front of Santorum. It would be hard for Romney to avoid debating Gingrich two more times if Newt were nipping at his heels and it would be hard for Santorum to make a case for continuing to divide the Not Romney vote if he finished behind libertarian stalwart Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
It would also mean that Romney would face increasing pressure in Florida to release his tax returns now instead of April. His argument that he wants to make one document dump this spring when he files this year's taxes sounds more than a bit cynical. He's pinning it on the wickedness of the Obama Democrats, but Republican voters may tend to wonder why they can't see his stuff before they decide.
But a Romney win of any size would be an expression from Republican voters that they are ready to fall in line and move on to the general election.
Scenario Two: Newt Nukes Romney
Finishing Order: Gingrich, Romney, Paul, Santorum
When Gingrich turned CNN's John King over his knee and gave the anchor a sound spanking for a lead-off debate question about the former speaker's 12-year-old divorce, one was reminded how much Republicans love to hate the establishment press.
Gingrich may have never been better than he was in Monday's FOX News/Wall Street Journal debate, but he showed enough of the old flash on Thursday to remind South Carolina voters that they love to see their Georgia bulldog sink his teeth into an opponent's hindquarters.
While Romney tried to be bolder, vowing not to be ashamed of his wealth and success and directly challenging Gingrich on Newt's posture as Ronald Reagan's comrade in conservative revolution, but when he's scrapping, as he was Thursday, Gingrich is hard to top. Gingrich is never as bad as he is when he's on top, but never as good as he is when he's on the comeback.
If the phases of the Newt are in alignment, South Carolina voters may give him the nod, and, for the first time since their benediction of Reagan in 1980, totally roil the Republican race. Remember that while South Carolina has always picked the winner, it has also never failed to affirm the decision of either Iowa or New Hampshire. Gingrich has won neither state, so this would be a major break from convention.
But a vote for Gingrich is also a vote to keep the process going and not cave in to Romney, who has yet to win the affection of the Republican electorate. This scenario would almost certainly jettison from Santorum from the race, ratchet up the pressure on Romney over his taxes and make the Florida primary a hugely expensive, viciously ugly two-dog fight between Romney and Gingrich. Woof.
Scenario Three: Right Can't Unite
Finishing Order: Romney, Gingrich, Santorum, Paul
Rick Santorum was totally ticked off on Thursday. He blasted Gingrich and Romney over and over with a disdain bordering on contempt. The message to South Carolina conservatives: "These guys? Really?"
And Santorum has company in his view that neither the changeable, moderate, Mormon former governor of Massachusetts nor the thrice married, mercurial former House speaker merit the support of evangelicals who prize personal character and political conservatism equally in candidates.
James Dobson and other social conservative heavyweights have thrown in behind Santorum and local preachers and religious groups in South Carolina have taken up his cause. While these may be more votes against Romney and Gingrich than votes for Santorum, they still count the same in the ballot box.
If Santorum can siphon off enough Gingrich votes to have Newt finish closer to him than Romney, the Not Romney primary will rage on. That is the best possible scenario for Romney. Not only would it widen his margin of victory in South Carolina, but it would assure a divided right in Florida.
It's exactly one year until Inauguration Day. Who would have guessed the presidential process would be in this state today?
And Now, A Word From Charles
"[Rick Perry] showed why it's important to actually start out in the minor leagues. Normally a candidate will spend six months out before the debate and before he goes national where he works out all the kinks and develops a speech and knows how to answer stuff. And Perry didn't. He started major league level in the all-star game and had trouble at the beginning."
Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as digital politics editor based in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he serves as the host of "Power Play" on FoxNews.com and makes daily appearances on the network including "America Live with Megyn Kelly," "Special Report with Bret Baier," and "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace." Most recently, Stirewalt provided expert political analysis during the 2012 presidential election.