The Palmetto Payoff

In the 19th century, sailing ships plying the lucrative China trade out of Baltimore had a harsh but economic way of dealing with crew at the end of a two-year voyage. With the homeport in sight, the captain would use the heavy boom to knock a crewman into the water, thereby banking his pay. It was known as The Baltimore Payoff.

Mitt Romney got the Palmetto Payoff Saturday night, a swift hit upside the head from South Carolina Republicans that shattered his image as the party’s inevitable nominee. His double-digit defeat at the hands of the resurgent Newt Gingrich changed the equation in the Republican race and assured that this already long primary season will continue into the spring. Romney may yet win the nomination, but not without a fight.

Florida is a different ball game, as should be apparent in tonight’s debate on NBC. The Massachusetts Moderate is likely to swing hard at Gingrich, depicting the former Speaker as a failed leader. Gingrich, if he is as smart as he thinks he is, will adopt a more Presidential posture to help wavering Republicans envision him in the Oval Office.

The debates are more than just Reality TV.

They have become the central focus of the campaign in which candidates define or destroy themselves. And for Gingrich, whose campaign is still under-financed, they are the ultimate in free TV. It was no surprise, then, when Gingrich promised on Saturday night to challenge President Obama to seven three-hour debates during the general election campaign. No sitting President would give his opponent such a gift of free exposure, of course, but the prospect enhanced Gingrich’s image as a scrappy fighter willing to confront Obama.

Since we have to wait two more weeks for the Superbowl, tonight’s debate will have to fill the void.