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The Rage of Newt

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Newt Gingrich arguably won South Carolina – and resurrected his candidacy for the umpteenth time – on the strength of a single debate answer.

The masterful rhetoric of Newt Gingrich’s response to John King’s question at Thursday’s debate about allegations made by his wife that he had asked her for an “open marriage” saved his campaign and propelled him to victory.

Carefully calibrated anger has been a staple of Presidential debates for decades – recall Reagan’s famous retort to Jon Breen in 1980: “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!” – but surely the genre has found it’s new touchstone.

Gingrich was ready for the question, and responded with a blistering display of righteous scorn anger toward the moderator and the media. Eyes wide, eyebrows slanted, jaw hard set, the former jabbed his finger at the moderator and accused him of “mak[ing] it harder to govern this country.”

This moment of strength was exactly what Gingrich needed, immunizing him from further discussion about his ex-wife’s allegations. The audience was delighted (as they always are) at such brio, and leapt to its feet, cheering him on and making it impossible for the other candidates to attack him.

This is classic Gingrich – the kind of defiant, confident, and incredibly risky answer to an attack that few politicians could pull off. With only hours between his ex-wife’s broadcast on ABC and that evening’s debate, without opinion polls, without focus groups, Gingrich took a gamble that by sheer force of Newtness he could turn the tables on his ex-wife and convince voters that he was the innocent victim of liberal media bias.

Republican primary voters responded to Gringrich’s hucksterish show of strength – in force.

Tonight’s exit polls tell the story. Over 40 percent of voters – over half of whom only made up their mind in the last couple days – voted for Gingrich.  Gingrich even won a plurality of women. And, most startlingly, Gingrich beat Mitt Romney by 14 percentage points among voters who most value a candidate who “can defeat Barack Obama.” That’s a humiliating 26-point drop for Romney since New Hampshire, who has made electability the core argument of his primary campaign.

Thursday was the single best day of Gingrich’s campaign, but it could easily have turned out differently. It could have been the day Rick Perry looked more foolish than ever – concluding six hapless months of campaigning by endorsing Newt Gingrich just moments before scandal irreversibly marred the former speaker’s candidacy. It could have been the day that Gingrich’s steady gain in the polls was reversed by his penchant for flamboyance and overreach.

Instead, Gingrich’s rage triumphed, winning him the debate, the day, and the primary. And who knows? I can only hope he’ll win the privilege of being soundly trounced by President Obama in November.