Gwen’s Take: Five Things to Watch for in South Carolina


COLUMBIA, S.C. | This has probably been the single craziest week of the 2012 campaign, as candidates rose and fell nearly every single day.

As the voters here head to the polls for an unusual Saturday Republican party primary, here’s what I am watching for.

1. Will Mitt Romney put it away?

It’s easy to forget that this state seemed a slam dunk for the former Massachusetts governor as recently as last week. He still has an edge in the final polling, but those same surveys have shown Newt Gingrich — considered political road kill after losing badly in both Iowa and New Hampshire — closing in. But now, with two trailing candidates off the stage, Gingrich is counting on a strong finish to convince voters down the line that this thing isn’t over — yet.

2. Is Gingrich’s surge real?

If the former House Speaker thought he had everything but the kitchen sink thrown at him in Iowa, it now turns out he had only gotten a mere taste of what true scrutiny can be. Romney forces — including independent Super PACs — poured millions of dollars into television advertising that painted him as unreliable and erratic. Surrogate spokespeople held daily conference calls to pound the point home. Then, at week’s end, the second of Gingrich’s three wives granted unflattering interviews to both ABC News and the Washington Post questioning his moral character. Gingrich’s response was akin to his Iowa campaign. At first he took the high road — he would not dignify the inappropriate question, he assured me during an interview on his campaign bus. But hours later, on the debate stage, he went ballistic on CNN’s John King during the latest candidate debate. How dare the media even ask such a question?

The high dudgeon worked. As when he took off after FOX News questioner Juan Williams earlier in the week, the audience jumped to its feet applauding.

3. Is the Tea Party still a force?

This state provides the first true test of 2012 Tea Party politics. With Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and now Rick Perry out of the race, the naked grab for the socio-economic conservative voter has been without a true home. Some have flocked to Ron Paul, whose small government arguments hold tremendous appeal. But others — especially religious conservatives — have been drawn to Rick Santorum. For Romney — who is widely viewed as too moderate for this crowd — to win, the Tea Partyers will have to remain split. Since by some counts there are more than 100 Tea Party groups in South Carolina, this might not be so hard to do.

4. Can Nikki Haley deliver?

See Tea Party above. Haley’s decision to endorse Romney was designed in part to signal to conservatives that he was OK. When she was elected governor here, Haley’s was one of the Tea Party’s biggest 2010 victories, and she won Sarah Palin’s blessing. But Haley’s popularity has waned somewhat at home, and it was Palin who announced this week that she would vote for Gingrich if she lived here, if only to keep the race going. That could easily happen.

5. When will we tire of debates?

Apparently not soon enough. It can certainly be argued that Gingrich owes his surprising resurgence to his star turn at the first of this week’s two South Carolina debates. But on closer scrutiny, it’s clear these candidate forums start off flashy and fade fast. Do you remember anything that happened after the Gingrich-King clash during the first minutes Thursday night? But prepare yourself. As Bill Clinton was fond of saying, everything’s been said but everyone hasn’t yet said it. There’s a Florida debate in St. Petersburg scheduled for next Monday.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.