Like a lot of folks, I’ve been having a grand time poking fun at the Republican 2012 presidential nomination contest for several months now.  But at this point, it’s almost gotten too surreal for even a cynic like me.

As of a week ago, most of the drama (or comedy) seemed to be over, as GOP primary voters seemed ready to surrender to Mitt Romney’s inevitability.

But now, if the polls are to be believed, Newt Gingrich is going to rise from the ashes of Iowa and New Hampshire to win the South Carolina primary.  On one level, this might be explained easily — just as Romney buried Newt under an avalanche of super-PAC spending in Iowa, Gingrich began returning the favor this past week.

For Gingrich to win a primary at this point, though, means re-activating the same sort of denial about his personal flaws  that briefly insulated Herman Cain earlier (until it turned out he was hitting on white women… some lines, it appears, still can’t be crossed).  Now, I understand that the far-right Republican base doesn’t comprise the sanest people in the world — but what is inspiring such perverse devotion?  What is Mitt Romney not giving them that Gingrich does?

There were some clues in last night’s debate.  First, as Josh Marshall and others noted, the audience reacted rapturously as Newt turned a question about his marital failings into a (faux-)outraged tirade against the media.  But that’s not all.  If you look at the video above, watch how Mitt recovers from an awkward, boo-worthy response about his tax returns: by remembering an obviously scripted, but still assertive lecture about how he’s not ashamed to be successful and he’ll take it to Obama by telling him “how the free economy works, and what it takes to put Americans back to work.” (A line of argument I predicted last week, for what it’s worth, but that’s not really the point.)

You might tie this into George Lakoff’s framing theories and say that these ultra-conservatives are looking for the strongest daddy, someone who’s assertive to the point of being brazen.  You could also theorize that they’re looking for symbolic absolution for their own flaws — someone who proves they don’t have to feel guilt about their own greed, lust, or whichever other deadly sin is their personal favorite.

It’s kind of disturbing any way you look at it, though.