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Tea Party Tally

Is tea party 'dead' if Newt Gingrich fails in South Carolina?

The tea party has been at the forefront of the anyone-but-Mitt Romney campaign but has not yet curbed his momentum. If the movement fails to propel tea-party favorite Newt Gingrich to victory in South Carolina, its clout could come into question.  

By Staff writer / January 20, 2012

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich attends the South Carolina Tea Party Convention in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Monday.

Eric Thayer/REUTERS

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Atlanta

Since it was incorporated into the presidential primary calendar in 1980, South Carolina has been an important tool for the Republican establishment.

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Coming after nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, the reliably conservative Southern state has served as a check on those states' sometimes-eclectic tendencies, making sure an "establishment" candidate gets a chance to gain momentum. Indeed, since 1980, it has picked every eventual Republican nominee.

This year, however, South Carolina could do the exact opposite, upending the momentum of the "electable" candidate (Mitt Romney) and resuscitating the campaign of a man few in the GOP establishment want (Newt Gingrich). It would be a reversal potentially with significant meaning for the almost-forgotten tea party. 

Barely more than a year after it changed the face of Washington in historic midterm elections, the tea party has yet to leave any clear mark on the GOP nominating process. Iowa and New Hampshire have given momentum to Mr. Romney, whose perceived ideological squishiness is anathema to the tea party insurgency. The Jan. 31 primary in Florida could virtually seal his nomination.

But standing in his way is South Carolina, a tea party heartland where four of five congressmen, as well as the governor, are tea party supporters. As a result, South Carolina is emerging as a litmus test for the movement: If the tea party can't flex its political muscle here, then where can it?

“South Carolina has become the only possible firewall for the conservative base that hopes to stop the front-runner,” writes Matt Bai in a New York Times Magazine article. “If the discontented activists who stormed the party in 2010 can’t find a way to take out the establishment’s chosen nominee here, of all places, then they might as well slap those Romney/Rubio bumper stickers on their S.U.V.’s now and get it over with.”

A Romney win would be read read as a sign that the tea party is now a spent political force, or – perhaps even worse, to some tea partyers – has abandoned its principles to back an "electable" candidate. If a surging Mr. Gingrich, who has coveted the tea party mantle, manages to win, though, it could suggest that the movement retains some of its antiestablishment mojo. 

To be sure, Romney's inability to pull away from the field despite overwhelming establishment support might be one sign of how the tea party ethos has infused the GOP primary season, both in South Carolina and elsewhere. But the movement's inability so far to coalesce around any alternative has made Romney's path to the nomination easier, raising questions about whether the tea party has lost its influence. 

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