Just days before the South Carolina primary, polls showed Mitt Romney leading Newt Gingrich. Then came the debates and the question about Gingrich's private life, which brought a devastating response from the former Speaker of the House -- and a standing ovation from the audience.
Apparently the television audience felt the same way, judging by the huge turnaround in the support for Gingrich. The stunning victory in South Carolina brought Newt's candidacy back to life.
But the message from South Carolina was about more than a reaction to how Gingrich dealt with a cheap shot question from the media. Nor was it simply the Republican voters' response to Newt's mastery as a debater.
The more fundamental message is that the Republican primary voters do not want Mitt Romney, even if the Republican establishment does -- and it is just a question of which particular conservative alternative the voters prefer.
The successive boomlets for Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain showed the Republican voters' constant search for somebody -- anybody -- as an alternative to Romney. The splintering of the conservative vote among numerous conservative candidates allowed Romney to be the "front-runner," but he never ran far enough in front to get a majority.
Mitt Romney's supposed "electability" -- his acceptability to moderates and independents -- has been his biggest selling point. Moreover, he is just the kind of candidate that the Republican establishment has preferred for years: a nice, bland, moderate who offends nobody.
This is the kind of candidate that is supposed to be the key to victory, no matter how many such candidates have gone down to defeat. If the bland and inoffensive moderate was in fact the key to victory, Dewey would have won a landslide victory over Truman in 1948, and John McCain would have beaten Barack Obama in 2008.
Whomever the Republicans choose as their candidate is going to have to run against both Obama and the pro-Obama media. Newt Gingrich has shown that he can do that. Romney? Not so much. Mitt Romney's fumbling when trying to answer the simple question of whether he would or would not release his income tax records is the kind of indecisiveness that is not going to cut it in a nationally televised debate with President Obama.
Gingrich is not just a guy who is fast and feisty on his feet. He has a depth of understanding of what issues are crucial, experience in how to deal with them and -- almost equally important -- experience in how to shoot down the petty, irrelevant and "gotcha" distractions of the media.
Does Gingrich have negative qualities? More than most. Wild statements, alienation of colleagues, reckless gambits. His use of the rhetoric of the left in attacking Bain Capital was a recent faux pas, though one that he quickly backed away from.
But if we are serious -- and there has seldom, if ever, been a time in the history of this nation when it was more necessary to be serious -- then we cannot simply add up talking points for or against a candidate. What matters is how that candidate stands on issues that can make or break the future of this country.
Polls show the public as a whole with more negative attitudes toward Gingrich than toward Romney. But negative opinions, like other opinions, are not set in stone.
If the election campaign changes the opinions of a significant minority of the anti-Gingrich voters -- when the alternative is Obama -- it will not matter how much the remainder may hate Newt.
Is this a gamble? The painful reality is that everyone in this year's field of Republican candidates is a gamble. And re-electing Obama is an even bigger gamble.
Whichever candidate the Republican voters finally choose from this year's field, they are bound to have reservations, if not fears. Gingrich's worst could be worse than Romney's worst, both as a candidate and as a president. But Gingrich's best is much better than Romney's best.
Sometimes caution can be carried to the point where it is dangerous. When the Super Bowl is on the line, you don't go with the quarterback who is least likely to throw an interception. You go with the one most likely to throw a touchdown pass.
Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305. His website is www.tsowell.com.