Election 2012

Will the real GOP candidate please stand up?

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Peter van Agtmael / Magnum for TIME

Former Speaker of the House, and Republican presidential candidate, Newt Gingrich, greets supporters at a Chick-fil-A restaurant in Anderson, South Carolina on Primary Day, Jan. 21, 2012

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Gingrich strikes many Republicans as such a tangle of contradictions, such a carousel loaded with baggage, that they have no sympathy for Romney if he can't win this matchup. The first few days after South Carolina, however, the man seemed hopelessly tangled in his tax returns. When Romney grudgingly released two years' worth of data one week before the Florida primary, he gave the public a rare look inside the financial realities of nine-digit wealth. We learned that amazing things can happen when the IQs of America's best tax attorneys feast on the jungle foliage of the U.S. tax code. The Romneys give away more in charity each year than the average American family earns in a lifetime; on the other hand, they pay less than 15% tax on their income. Why it took Romney so long to release the records, why he didn't release more--and most of all, why he didn't accompany the release with a bold plan for taming the jungle through tax reform--were mysteries that had strategists across the country scratching their heads. More than one used the word malpractice.

But Romney has stumbled before and righted himself; he isn't a gifted campaigner, but he is a dogged one. He also has up to $10 million available to bombard Floridians with the contradictions and shortcomings of a man who was reprimanded by the House Ethics Committee, paid a $300,000 fine for misleading Congress and griped that he wasn't treated respectfully enough on Air Force One.

And after Florida, Romney aides say, the battle shifts to more favorable turf for their man. A few days later comes Nevada, with its large Mormon population. Then come caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado and a primary in Missouri; in the latter, Gingrich did not even make the ballot. Then come Michigan, Romney's native state, which he won in 2008, and Arizona, where the campaign also feels confident. That could be do or die for Romney, because the race returns in a big way to Gingrich country on March 6, when many of the remaining Southern states size up the man from Georgia alongside a Mitt from Massachusetts.

If Gingrich prevails between now and then, though, this unlikely story could be down to its last big plot twist. In this one, a party that has spoken of little other than beating Obama decides at the last moment that other things matter more. Sure, Gingrich is among the least popular politicians in America, according to the Gallup poll, with more than half the people in the country holding an unfavorable opinion of him. Why should their opinions matter more than the opinion of Barbara Marks of Laughlin, Nev., who drove across the country to celebrate the Gingrich win in South Carolina? "The other candidates have no clue what we're up against," she said as she basked at the bomb thrower's ball. "He might not succeed, but he'll die trying."

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