A surging Newt Gingrich could be on the brink of a crucial upset victory in today's Republican primary in South Carolina, dooming the hopes of front runner Mitt Romney of effectively wrapping up the contest for the party's presidential nomination by the end of this month.
The combative former Speaker's star has been rising here all week. But he excelled himself in Thursday's candidates' debate, bringing the conservative audience to its feet with his blistering attack on the media, in response to allegations from his divorced second wife Marianne – a tirade enough on its own, many observers said yesterday, to tip the neck-and-neck race with Mr Romney in his favour.
The outburst came at the very start of the debate as the moderator, the CNN journalist John King, asked him about his former wife's charge – broadcast later that night in an interview on network television – that in 1999, when he was involved in an affair, he had asked her for an "open marriage".
Mr Gingrich did not simply deny her claims, which in fact have been aired before. He turned the moment into a furious broadside against the "liberal media" that the Republican right so detests. The question was "trash" and "as close to despicable as anything I can imagine", he said to thunderous cheers from the hall. "I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that." With that reply alone, many argued, he won not just the debate, but the primary as well.
Thursday's verbal shootout between the four remaining candidates – as angry and personal as any such debate in recent memory – only reinforced South Carolina's reputation as the most critical of the early Republican primaries. This year it has more than lived up to that reputation. Already it has knocked Texas governor Rick Perry out of the race. Today its voters can prolong the battle at least until "Super Tuesday" on March 6, when 10 states hold primaries and caucuses, by giving Mr Gingrich a win. Or they could effectively end it by crowning Mr Romney – in which case the former Massachusetts governor would go to Florida for the next primary on January 31 in a well-nigh unassailable position.
On polling's eve, the first option looked distinctly more likely: meaning that an electorate made up for 60 per cent of Christian evangelists will have concluded that Mr Gingrich's transgressions were old news, and that human redemption and a loathing for the media outweighed religious concerns about the sanctity of marriage.
The outcome could yet be decided by a minority of undecided voters and by Democrats and independents allowed to vote in the state's open primary. But last night, all the momentum was with Mr Gingrich, as he added several important local state endorsements to Thursday's blessing from Mr Perry, and Sarah Palin's statement that if she were a Southern Carolinian, she would cast her vote today for the former Speaker.
A week ago, he was trailing Mr Romney by a dozen points or more. Now polls put the two in a virtual dead heat, with slightly over 30 per cent apiece. Some even have Mr Gingrich narrowly ahead.
The Gingrich pyrotechnics overshadowed both another flat debate performance from Mr Romney, and an impressive showing from Rick Santorum, who after Mr Perry's departure is Mr Gingrich's sole rival for the social conservative vote. Mr Romney was marginally more effective than in Monday's first candidates' debate in the state, but once again, to widespread astonishment, he equivocated on the release of his tax returns, drawing some boos from the audience and allowing Mr Gingrich to get in another jab. The party couldn't have a nominee who turned out to have embarrassing personal tax issues. "But if there's nothing in there," Mr Gingrich asked, "why not release it?"
Mr Santorum, the former Pennsylvania Senator who this week belatedly found himself the winner of Iowa's January 3 caucuses, by contrast took direct aim at Mr Gingrich's non-marital campaign baggage: his bombastic demeanour, and his well advertised management deficiencies. "Grandiosity has never been a problem with Newt Gingrich," he declared.
The former Speaker swatted that one off: "I think grandiose thoughts, this is a big country doing big things." But Mr Santorum persisted, saying the Gingrich method was "an idea a minute, no discipline, no ability to pull things together". The debate audience in Charleston didn't seem to mind, but in less conservative states than South Carolina that criticism may be more damaging.
In reality however, Mr Santorum is in a fight with Ron Paul, the libertarian Texas Congressman for a distant third place.
Key battleground: South Carolina
Since it began in 1980, the winner of the South Carolina primary has gone on to clinch the Republican nomination for President. Barring Jimmy Carter's triumph in 1976, the state has also backed the Republican nominee in every presidential poll since 1964.
In the 2008 exit polls, 60 per cent of the voters were evangelical Christians. This year, about 500,000 voters are expected to take part in the Republican context.
Polls indicate that the weak economy – at 10 per cent, South Carolina's unemployment rate is well above the national average of 8.5 per cent – tops the roster of voters' concerns.
All hail: Talent at the top
Barack Obama wowed a campaign fundraiser in New York on Thursday, addressing an impressive rendition of the first bars of Al Green's hit "Let's Stay Together" to the soul legend, who was in the audience. Here we look at other US presidents who have used their talents to impress.
Bill Clinton – saxophone
One of the more memorable moments of Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign came the night he appeared on The Arsenio Hall Show. Dressed in a sharp suit, the presidential hopeful belted out Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" on his tenor sax to rapturous applause.
Thomas Jefferson – design
The third US president was a man of many talents – but it was in architecture that he originally made a name for himself. Though not formerly trained, he studied Parisian architecture while living there and constantly redesigned his own home, Monticello.
Ronald Reagan – acting
Reagan had starred in 53 Hollywood films before winning the presidency in 1981. He almost always played the "good guy", which did little to harm his popularity – but it did make him the butt of many bad actor jokes, including one about how he had been upstaged by a chimpanzee in one of his earlier films, Bedtime for Bonzo.
Richard Nixon – piano
In 1962, Nixon performed his own piano composition on Jack Paar's Tonight Show after losing the vice-presidency. Later, as President, he gave the first live performance for the long-running radio programme the Grand Ole Opry , playing and singing happy birthday to his wife.