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.
For example, one beautiful morning a few days before the Florida primary, Gingrich appeared at a rally in a perfectly picturesque waterfront setting at Lake Dora. Standing before a big, happy crowd, Gingrich -- under fire not only from Romney but from conservative commentators who seemed to gang up on him all at once -- launched into a dyspeptic prologue to his stump speech, denouncing Romney's "gall" and mud-slinging.
It was no way to build support. But even with his raging resentment toward Romney's tactics, Gingrich could still shine on the stump. In Cape Canaveral, he delivered a remarkably good speech on space policy; it was smart, filled with substance, even inspiring. A few days later, Romney came to the Space Coast and delivered a lackluster message that mostly showed he had no space policy at all. And after that, Romney, the man with no ideas on space, mocked Gingrich for having ideas, saying if he were still in business he would fire Gingrich for coming up with a crazy plan like establishing a base on the moon.
Gingrich, usually quick on his feet, thought of a good comeback only later. Romney, he said, "is the kind of guy who would have fired Christopher Columbus."
Gingrich never recovered from Romney's thrashing in Florida, although he later won his home state of Georgia by a huge margin. With that exception, the Gingrich campaign faltered step by step. First Gingrich was going to win the nomination. Then he was going to keep Romney from winning the nomination. Then he was going to fight for conservative positions in the Republican platform. Then he withdrew.
In an organizational sense, Gingrich never really had much of a campaign. But he is a serious man who has accomplished big things in his life, and his presence made the race a more substantial affair. And it's fair to say Romney became a better candidate after facing the Gingrich challenge. Even those Republicans who never wanted Gingrich to win should be glad he ran.