Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney switched tactics (if not bodies) in the critical final hours before South Carolina's potentially game-changing Republican primary. The Freaky Friday dynamics illustrated how the Romney cakewalk has turned into a food fight.
The normally garrulous Mr. Gingrich, who got a standing ovation for venting his spleen at the media in Thursday's debate, was a study in Romney-like restraint and discipline. He did not want to "pop" – as Rick Santorum warned he might if he ever got to the Oval Office.
Mr. Romney, perhaps sensing his Plan A path to the GOP nomination sliding out from under him, took to making Gingrich-like, below-the-belt attacks on his rival. He evoked Mr. Gingrich's ethics violations and the caucus mutiny that cost him the Speaker's job in the late 1990s.
"He was pushed out of the House by his fellow members," Mr. Romney said. "Over 80 per cent of Republican congressmen voted to reprimand the Speaker of the House."
If the polls are right, each candidate has a nearly equal block of GOP voters behind him going into Saturday's primary. But Mr. Gingrich may have the edge with the exit of Texas Governor Rick Perry from the race and his momentum with anti-Romney voters.
If he loses, Mr. Romney's aura of inevitability evaporates. He will face a historic challenge that may take more than his considerable money and organization to overcome. Since 1980, no Republican has won the nomination without winning South Carolina.
Red-meat Republicans are solidly behind Mr. Gingrich. They do not buy polls predicting their candidate would get creamed by President Barack Obama in the fall. They believe he would ride strong debate performances all the way to the White House, using language as a weapon of Democrat destruction just as Mr. Obama once used it as a tool of seduction.
The pragmatists are for Mr. Romney. They seem to care only about the economy and putting a Republican in the Oval Office. They are more discreet than Gingrich supporters, the kind of people who do not want their names in the paper. But they harbour no illusions about the need to attract centrist voters in order to take back the White House.
The transformation of the race into a neck-and-neck battle between Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich leaves South Carolina's normally powerful social conservatives with a choice to make on Saturday. They can play kingmaker or stick with Mr. Santorum, the ex-Pennsylvania senator who won the backing of evangelical leaders.
Polls show many have already made the move, but Tommy Plonk is not one of them. The 64-year-old title searcher from Columbia said he felt Mr. Gingrich has a "weak" moral core and is "too much of a rationalizer" in explaining away his past failures.
As for Mr. Romney, Mr. Plonk said he considered him a "very, very honest, upstanding and dependable person." But his religion is a deal-breaker. "As a conservative Christian, we strongly feel the Mormons are misguided in their teachings."
Nancy Corbin, a 66-year-old retiree who favours Mr. Santorum, is no fan of Mr. Gingrich. But she said she would find it easier to vote for the ex-Georgia congressman, a fellow Southerner, than for Mr. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor.
"He may be a Republican but he's not our kind of Republican," she said of Mr. Romney.
Joyce Lovell, 82, of Beaufort, S.C., had been "on the fence." But her choice crystallized after the debates.
"At first, I thought Romney might have the best chance" against Mr. Obama, she offered. "But after seeing Newt in action, I think he would be stronger. He would fight."
She dismissed as "a lot of baloney" the claim by Mr. Gingrich's ex-wife that he once sought an "open marriage" so he could keep a mistress on the side.
Mr. Gingrich's response, during a CNN debate on Thursday night, will go down as perhaps the most brilliant play to the party base in modern Republican history. He turned a potentially crippling attack on his moral character into a reason to vote for him.
By blaming the "destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media" for complicating the business of governing, he was able to express believable indignation at the moderator for bringing up such "trash" at the outset of "a presidential debate."
"I don't normally vote in primaries. But I have to admit I think Newt's response was great," said Mike Refieuna, a 42-year-old Charleston wine salesman. "I like it when people speak their mind. That's what this country is all about – freedom of speech."
He said he would cast a ballot on Saturday, for either Mr. Gingrich or Mr. Romney.
"The only thing that bothers me about Romney is this tax thing," he added, referring to Mr. Romney's muddled debate reply about releasing his tax returns. "It's kind of like Barack Obama's birth certificate. Just release it."
Indeed, Mr. Romney may have wasted the crucial days before the primary fending off repeated calls to release the documents now. It took him off his jobs message in a state that needs them far more than most.
And he could pay the price for it well beyond South Carolina.