COLUMBIA , S.C. — It is always here in the birthplace of the Civil War that things go bump in the night for presidential campaigns.
In 2000, John McCain’s surge for the GOP nomination was derailed by rumors he had a love child. Four years ago, Bill Clinton injected race into the Democratic nomination in an effort to derail Barack Obama’s juggernaut campaign in South Carolina.
But all the shady twists and turns of the past were nothing compared with the Spanish moss-draped soap opera that has unfolded here in the past week.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s wife was smeared with “ugly, cheap and tawdry” talk passed around on hot-pink fliers about her life romancing an abortionist before she married the Christian conservative Republican.
Two candidates — former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and Texas Gov. Rick Perry — crashed and burned, each begrudgingly endorsing their former enemies as they withdrew.
By the time of the much-hyped showdown yesterday at the Ham House — a diner where former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney were slated to clash on the day of the primary — everyone was too exhausted for any more tears.
It has been a week of more heartache and drama than “Gone with the Wind.” More intrigue than a John Grisham novel. And the story has been so Southern Gothic as to make William Faulkner wake from the dead to enjoy the show.
Far and away, the most salacious chapter of the past week has been the final-hours, heart-bearing interview by Mr. Gingrich’s second ex-wife, telling the world that her ex-husband is an open marriage-seeking, dishonest cad unworthy of the presidency.
And, yet, here in the first Bible Belt primary, it is the serial philanderer who left two wives on their sick beds who won handily last night.
Scoring a measly third was the original Bible-thumper himself, Mr. Santorum, who got busted in the lip by the very buckle of the Bible Belt. And Mr. Romney, the alleged safe-bet Republican front-runner, came in a lousy second.
The truth is, nobody actually likes Mr. Gingrich. They just really don’t like Mr. Romney or Mr. Santorum, and they are a little worried about Rep. Ron Paul.
Most of all, it is the media that voters despise and they cast their votes just to keep Mr. Gingrich’s relentless beatings of the media going on for as long as possible. The spurious claims made against the former House speaker by his ex-wife not only didn’t hurt him, they actually helped him. Because a vote for him was a vote against the media that gave such voice to her aspersions.
So, it is hardly surprising that after a weeklong soap opera, it is the king of drama who emerged the victor after delivering the operatic performance of a lifetime trashing the media in the last debate.
The king of drama, Mr. Gingrich is flawed, brilliant, introspective and full of passion. At times, he is the soul-searching Hamlet and at other times the destructive King Lear.
The most important question now is whether Mr. Gingrich can harness that passion and muster the discipline to beat the man who prides himself on being “no drama” Obama.
• Charles Hurt may be reached at email@example.com.