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Of Preston Brooks and toughness: The real reason Newt Gingrich caned Mitt Romney in South Carolina

Southern_ChivalryNewt Gingrich didn't just beat Mitt Romney in South Carolina. He caned him.

Trailing by double-digits in the polls as late as mid-week, Gingrich beat Romney by about 12 percentage points, and it looks like Gingrich won all but two or three of the state's 46 counties. That means he might have won in each of the state's Congressional districts. So he could win all the state's 25 delegates -- even though Romney the day before had tried to downplay a Gingrich win by noting it wasn't a winner-take-all state.

The size of the victory was surprising. But the results for those reporters who interviewed voter after voter and saw the polls were expecting a big Gingrich win. The day of the election, the editors and political reporters at The State Newspaper in Columbia were saying it was going to be a "blowout." They didn't have exit polls. They just know the sense of the state.

Voters gave various ostensible reasons for backing Gingrich: They loved him drubbing the "elite" news media; they cherished the idea he would eviscerate Obama on the debate stage; they appreciated he wasn't politically correct.

Underpinning it all was one over-riding sense: Gingrich is tough. He's a fighter. Romney didn't look like one. Some of those voter voices are in these Miami Herald stories here and here. And where Gingrich takes on the news media and regularly answers questions, Romney can seem scared of the press and thin-skinned. Politico pointed out his staff went so far as to cut off a reporter Wednesday who "innocuously asked Romney" if he planned to eat a hush puppy at a barbecue joint.

There are lots of interesting analyses about the finer points of Gingrich's strategy and Romney's failures. But in the end, this race came down to toughness. Voters often pick candidates who are most like them, who embody their ideas. And in the South -- and Florida is part (only part) of the South -- voters like their politicians to draw blood. The tough guy wins in Florida. Ask Gov. Rick Scott and Gov. Jeb Bush about that.

South Carolina especially likes fighters. It's something ingrained in the state's history, past and present. Remember the guy who shouted "you lie!" at President Obama on the floor of the U.S. House? That was South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson, R-Springdale. Then there's the spirit of the Civil War.... er.... War of Northern Aggression. Before South Carolina bombed For Sumter, homestate Senator Preston Brooks had a score to settle with a Massachusetts liberal named Charles Sumner in 1856. Brooks approached him on the Senate floor and beat Sumner until his gold-tipped cane broke.

Last night, a Georgia pol named Newt Gingrich whooped a man he called a "Massachusetts moderate." And the political caning was one for the record books.

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