Watching Newt Gingrich's graceful and low-key withdrawal from the presidential race last week, it was hard not to think back to January in Columbia, S.C., when he drew a wall-to-wall, fired-up crowd to celebrate his blowout victory in that state's primary.
It was the most critical moment of the Republican race. In the days before South Carolina voters went to the polls, Republicans learned Mitt Romney had not won the Iowa caucuses after all; Romney's narrow victory over Rick Santorum turned out to be a narrow defeat. Romney went on to win decisively in New Hampshire, but South Carolina turned into a disaster: a 12-point loss to Gingrich. As the race headed to Florida, Romney was one-for-three, and Gingrich was gaining strength in the polls. Romney was in deep trouble.
Gingrich simply ran circles around Romney in South Carolina. On the stump, Gingrich paid his audiences the respect of speaking to them seriously, sometimes in quite a lot of detail, about serious things. Romney, in brief, sometimes frantic-feeling appearances, ran through a list of platitudes, often ending with his recitation of "America the Beautiful."
South Carolina was an astonishing resurrection for Gingrich, who first rose and fell in Iowa. Back then, Gingrich was something of a unity candidate, scoring big points by condemning the squabbling among his fellow candidates, instead directing his fire at President Obama. On Nov. 4, for example, Gingrich dazzled the crowd at the Iowa GOP Reagan Dinner by not only forcefully arguing for his own candidacy, but also by praising -- individually and in some detail -- each of the rival candidates who appeared with him.
"I am here with very fine competitors, but no opponents," Gingrich concluded. "We only have one opponent, and that's Barack Obama." The audience absolutely loved it.
As his fortunes rose in Iowa, Gingrich reacted angrily -- far too angrily -- when a pro-Romney super PAC (along with opponent Ron Paul) hit him with a barrage of negative advertising. New Hampshire was a total loss. But then Gingrich made his improbable, and remarkable, comeback.
In the hours after Gingrich's victory in South Carolina, Team Romney went into full emergency mode, coming up with a strategy to attack Gingrich aggressively in the Florida debates and drown him with a flood of negative advertising far bigger than anything Gingrich had seen in Iowa.
Gingrich unwittingly accommodated Romney's plan. First, he didn't prepare enough to counter Romney's new sharpness in debate. Then Gingrich reacted to the Romney attack ads the same way he had in Iowa -- with too much anger.