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What The Hell Is Happening In S.C.?

HARTSVILLE, S.C. -- If South Carolina is on the verge of its second great rebellion, then it is happening not with a bang but with a shrug. Specifically, the sort of shrug I got here in the heart of the state's cotton country from a staunch conservative by the name of Elayne Mahn, a retired admissions officer at tiny Coker College, when I asked her why revelations about Newt Gingrich's alleged request for an "open marriage" were not enough, in combination with all the rest of Newt's baggage, to scare her off of voting for him Saturday.

"Why is everybody harping on his personal stuff, when Bill Clinton was getting favors from Monica Lewinsky in the White House?" she huffed. "And now everyone says he was one of our best presidents." Yes, but, I ventured, wasn't there a question of hypocrisy, given that Newt was leading the impeachment push against Clinton at the same time as he was carrying on with Callista? Not so, said Mahn. "Newt was pretty open about his relationship." Um, no. He was open about his relationship -- and supposedly asked for an open marriage -- only after his second wife, Marianne, found out about it in the late 1990s, years after the affair started. Still, Mahn was unmoved. "It's immaterial to the way that he would lead his country," she said. (The one thing that worried her about Newt, she said, was his age and weight: "Let's face it, this country is plagued by obesity and Newt needs to get in shape.")

Mahn was far from the only Gingrich supporter to cite Clinton to me in rationalizing away Newt's marital messes. If South Carolina -- a state where even radio ads for pest control companies invoke the Lord -- gives Newt a win tomorrow, a rare act of defiance in a state where Republicans invariably jump on the establishment bandwagon in the presidential primary, it will be siding with the bad boy from the state next door partly because of the bad boy from the South's other flank. Somewhere, Strom Thurmond is smiling.

But of course it's not really about Newt. It's about the man that Republicans here were asked to rubber stamp, just as they rubber stamped John McCain in 2008 because it was his turn. It's Romney's turn now but for too many, he's a concession too far. For Rick Santorum supporter Kathy Mangone, a retiree who moved to the state 15 years ago from Pennsylvania, it's about Romneycare. "It's hard for him to stand there and attack Obamacare when Obama can just say, thanks for the blueprint!" she said. In general, she said, "Romney's been all over the place. He's like a weeping willow, blowing around. We need someone who will stand for what he believes."

For Kevin Giompalo, a 38-year-old truck driver who voted for McCain in the 2008 primary, Romney's being "too middle of the road, with no solid positions" was the main problem, but he was also put off by his resistance to releasing his tax returns. "He's waffling too much on the tax issue," he said. "It'll make it too easy for Obama -- he'll eat him up about the 99 percent stuff." Giompalo will vote for Newt instead. But what about the personal baggage? "I just believe redemption is the key," he said. "Some people do things at different times. He's answered all the questions; he hasn't run from it. I'm satisfied with how he's lived his life the last, what, 12 years."

Mark Moore, who runs a brick manufacturing company near here, says it's a "personal thing about Romney" that pushes him away from him and to Newt. "I just don't latch onto his presentation. The way he presents himself doesn't appeal to me. It's too polished. Whereas Newt will fire right back at you." He made the comparison I've heard repeatedly here: Newt is Reagan. "What convinced the Soviet Union that Reagan was serious about nuclear weapons was when he fired the air traffic controllers. Newt's that way. He means what he says he's gonna do." But what about his baggage? I asked. Won't that keep him from getting elected?? "It could be an issue, but it's how you spin it," Moore said. "It's like when Clinton had his fiasco in the Oval Office..." 

Let me interject here three mini-theories to explain why this is happening, beyond the obvious one: that Newt got one helluva spark with his food-stamp riff against Juan Williams Monday night. One, there is no question Gingrich benefits from his (former) Deep Southern address -- voters here speak of him with familiarity, as they would of a roguish uncle who's trying to settle down. Second, Newt is oddly not being hammered as much as he was by Romney's Super-PAC in Iowa, even though his chances here are far, far better than they were in the final week in Iowa. The Iowa airwaves were full of Newt's $1.8 million grab from Freddie Mac. Yet Moore, for instance, said he'd never even thought of that issue as he moved toward supporting Newt. Third, it seems quite possible that the utter dominance of Republicans in this state, and the rise of the Tea Party here, has made the state's Republicans a little, how shall we say, detached from political realities. (Not to mention inured against philandering politicians, what with their Buenos Aires-bound former governor.) If you can elect to Congress Tea Partiers like Tim Scott alongside die-hard stalwarts like "you lie" Joe Wilson, if Lindsey Graham is unacceptably moderate, then who's to say you can't elect Newt Gingrich president?

Trying gamely to talk some sense into voters is Santorum, who has boiled his pitch down to a pure electability one -- a bold move for a man who lost his last race against a Democrat by 18 points. When I saw him speaking to a small but fervent group of supporters at a BBQ joint in Lexington, just outside Columbia, Santorum was making the Goldilocks argument, which he'd picked up from a Christian talk show host -- "one candidate is a little too radioactive...and one candidate is just too darn cold...we need a candidate who's just right." A woman in the crowd ventured another electability metaphor -- the game of paper scissors rock. "McCain beat Romney, and Obama beat McCain, so what we need to beat Obama is someone else," she said. Except that under the metaphor of the game, it actually would be Romney who would beat Obama...

My favorite figurative language was quoted second hand by Mangone, the Santorum supporter. She had been making calls on her candidate's behalf and reached an older woman who was despairing over her choice. "I'm about to vote for my dog Oscar," the woman said. "I'm faced with choosing between a guy with a lot of money in offshore accounts and a guy who is an adulterer." Mangone of course told the woman, "Not really -- there's Rick Santorum!" The older woman was doubtful. "At this point, I'm just so disgusted."

Which pretty much says it all. If Gingrich manages to win here Saturday, it will throw us all into a tizzy as the circus heads to Florida. But make no mistake: it will be a grudging and settling choice, just a different sort of settling than settling on Mitt would have been. A more grandiose settling, if you will. Not so much amazing as mildly amazing.

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis