Gingrich, Romney face ultimate test

Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich participate in the CNN debate in Charleston, South Carolina, on Thursday..

Story highlights

  • Bruce Haynes: Conservative voters remain unconvinced by Mitt Romney's pitch
  • He says Gingrich faces an organizational issue -- can he compete with Romney machine?
  • Haynes asks whether Gingrich can use technology to his advantage
  • He says Romney's campaign has resources to compete for delegates in the big states
It's been a truism in American politics for over 30 years: South Carolina is where insurgent, underdog candidacies go to die. McCain beats Huckabee. Bush beats McCain. Dole and Bush beat Buchanan. The challenger is retired, and the front-runner begins to look ahead to November.
But this time, instead of closing out the GOP nominating conversation, South Carolina voters have begun a new conversation. Instead of ending the game, they're sending it into overtime and the outcome is now up in the air.
By handing Newt Gingrich a victory in the South Carolina primary Saturday night, conservative GOP voters have flatly declared they are not yet satisfied with Mitt Romney as their nominee.  They aren't sold, and want to hear and see more.
Republicans need to see Romney display the strength to defeat a serious candidate on neutral territory, unlike in New Hampshire. After all, if he can't win now, what does that portend for the fall?
Romney's inability to follow the path of other establishment candidates who have struck down insurgent opposition in South Carolina raises questions his campaign must answer. Why did he fail here where others have succeeded? What is missing in his message? Or, as some would say, is he a fundamentally flawed messenger who can never gain enough support within his own party to be an effective nominee?
Bruce Haynes
One question that has been answered is that of which flag conservative voters will pick to rally around. Gingrich's fearlessness and rhetorical firepower, evidenced in the debates, has drawn these voters to him. He's become the clear and chosen conservative alternative to Romney. Rick Santorum, thank you for playing. You'll find a lovely parting gift backstage on your way out of Columbia.
Candidates tout primary success
Candidates tout primary success


    Candidates tout primary success


Candidates tout primary success 01:11
But today Gingrich has a different challenge. Several states are now handing out GOP nominating delegates proportionally instead of winner-take-all. The Romney campaign has been building a machine that will provide him with the resources and ground game necessary to sustain an ongoing battle through the spring into the summer. Large states await like Florida and Michigan that are expensive to campaign in. Advantage Romney. 
Gingrich is not that far removed from being nearly broke and remains fairly devoid of seasoned staff. He has to build the airplane while he flies it. His campaign has very little of the money and organization in place necessary to run the marathon that is today's presidential nominating campaign. 
Gingrich has to find a way to compete with the Romney machine. One way is to try to match it, which is incredibly difficult to do in a compressed time frame. The alternative is to change the rules and blaze a new trail to success -- much like President Barack Obama did in 2008 -- making the traditional campaign model a thing of the past. 
In the era of Twitter and the 10-minute news cycle, can Gingrich harness emerging technologies and new techniques to organize, raise funds and communicate with voters effectively in new ways? 
The challenge seems impossible, but from the west Georgia classroom to the Washington cloakroom, Newt Gingrich has never been one for following traditional rules. 
One thing is certain -- there has never been a greater opportunity for Gingrich or Romney to use their campaigns to demonstrate the strength each would show as a president to the American voter. Whoever flexes his muscles first, best, and most firmly will be the GOP nominee.
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