Why Gingrich won -- Why Romney lost

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COLUMBIA, SC -- They won't say it publicly -- they don't want to appear churlish or disrespectful on a night they took a serious beating -- but it's no exaggeration to say that even after losing the South Carolina primary to Newt Gingrich, members of Mitt Romney's circle find it absurd -- almost crazy -- that the former House speaker has even a ghost of a chance of becoming the Republican Party's presidential nominee.

In their view, Gingrich has barely run a campaign.  As they see it, Team Gingrich doesn't have the money, professionalism, brains, or organization of the Romney campaign.  They see the former Speaker as somewhat unstable and vulnerable to continued attack on issues of ethics and morals.  And most of all, they see Gingrich as a candidate who owes his very existence to the never-ending series of Republican debates -- and not much more.

From Romney's perspective, the situation is almost like the Saturday Night Live skit from 1988 in which another Massachusetts governor, Michael Dukakis, stood onstage at a debate with a bumbling George H.W. Bush, looked at the camera and said, "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy."

But they are -- at least for now.  Gingrich's defeat of Romney in South Carolina Saturday was absolutely dominating.  Just a week ago, Romney had a solid lead over Gingrich in the polls.  On Saturday night, he lost to Gingrich by 12 points -- a huge and disastrous swing. Gingrich won 44 of South Carolina's 46 counties.

How did it happen?  For one thing, all the talk about Romney having a hugely superior ground organization turned out not to be true.  "They did not do the retail politics that a Santorum and a Gingrich have done over time," said Kevin Thomas, chairman of the Fairfield County Republican Party.  (Thomas was neutral in the race.)  "I think Newt's people, they had more on-the-ground staff, and they worked."  There were a lot of them, too; after Gingrich's strong showing in the debates, said Susan Meyers, Gingrich's media coordinator for the Southeast, "We have so many volunteers, our phones are melting right now."

Gingrich's campaign was also faster and more nimble than the Romney battleship. "There is a very strong contrast between the two campaign organizations," said Gingrich adviser (and former George W. Bush administration official) Kevin Kellems.  "In military terms, it's speed versus mass.  Newt Gingrich's operation, and Newt Gingrich as a man, has a great deal of speed -- intellectual speed, decisiveness.  The Romney campaign is much more about money and size, having hired half of Washington D.C.  And sometimes, speed beats mass."

It certainly did this time.  In the next few days, there will be plenty of analysis attributing Gingrich's victory to other factors: his commanding performances in debate, his next-door advantage in South Carolina, and Romney's now-traditional difficulties in the state.  But after all the talk of ground game and debate war, there's a simpler reason Gingrich won: On the stump, in town hall after town hall, across South Carolina, Gingrich has been a markedly better campaigner than Romney.

Romney stages perfect events.  For example, on the eve of the primary, Romney's rally in North Charleston was perfect from a production point of view: stage just right, big flags, big Romney signs, smooth introductions from South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, all topped off by a showy entrance by Romney, who arrived in his big campaign bus that drove right into the room.

It was perfect in every sense but engaging with the voters.  Romney's stump speech was a clipped -- some would say dumbed down -- list of generalities, concluding with this: "I love this land, I love its Constitution, I revere its founders, I will restore those principles, I will get America back to work, and I'll make sure that we remain the shining city on the hill."  Romney offered his supporters very little to chew on.  In this primary race, voters are hungry for substance, and Romney didn't give them much.

Gingrich's last event before the voting, a couple of hours later, was a rally on the hangar deck of the USS Yorktown, a World War II aircraft carrier that is now a floating museum across the bay from Charleston.  It was a most un-perfect affair.  To begin with, it just so happened that dozens of Cub Scouts were having an overnight on the Yorktown at the same time as Gingrich and the press showed up for the rally.  Their presence contributed to an air of happy chaos on board, and Gingrich was delighted to invite a few scouts on stage with him at the beginning of his speech.  When Gingrich got to the substance of his remarks, he was wandering, expansive, and detailed, where Romney had been brief and canned.  But Gingrich kept the crowd with him the whole way, and in the end had engaged his audience more than Romney could have hoped for.  Gingrich respected them enough to discuss issues with them seriously.

Romney's inability to connect cost him some key support in South Carolina.  In the room for Gingrich's victory speech Saturday night was Mike Campbell, a veteran South Carolina pol and son of legendary Gov. Carroll Campbell.  Mike Campbell had supported Jon Huntsman until Huntsman withdrew last Monday, and the conventional wisdom holds that Huntsman supporters, once their man was gone, would likely go to the moderate Romney.  Instead, Campbell went to Gingrich.

Why? Even after four years of trying, Campbell can't quite accept Romney's changes of position on abortion and other issues.  But beyond that, Campbell explained, there was something about Romney that he, like a lot of other South Carolinians, just couldn't live with. "[Voters] can't quite get that comfort level with him," Campbell said.  "They don't really know quite where he really is coming from.  It's an intangible."

Another legendary South Carolina political name, Attorney General Henry McMaster, was also aligned with Huntsman until Monday, and he too chose Gingrich instead of Romney.  McMaster cited Gingrich's performance in the two South Carolina debates as a prime factor in his decision, but he also expressed concern over Romney's problem engaging voters. "I don't know why," McMaster said Saturday night.  "I can't explain it, but there's a little bit of a connection problem."

Just a few days ago, many commentators were suggesting that Romney was likely to win South Carolina, and when he did, the GOP nomination would be his. Now Romney has been soundly rejected in the first primary in the South, the rock-solid base of the Republican Party.  What happens next, in Florida, is unclear.

Gingrich's success here in South Carolina shows more than just a skepticism toward establishment Republicanism.  It also shows a hunger for real substance in the campaign, for a candidate who will talk to voters and give them more than phrases like "I believe in America."  Mitt Romney's team of seasoned campaign professionals may not think Newt Gingrich has any business playing a deciding role in the race.  But they better believe it, and they better take seriously what the Gingrich challenge represents -- before it's too late.

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