If Mitt Romney’s team and supporters are bruised and fretful today, they should go back and read the public statements by senior campaign officials and Romney himself, who from the onset of the race, predicted that it would go on longer than many expected. Before the weirdest week in South Carolina politics in our lifetime, it seemed Romney might be able to wrap this up early. But the political fates had something else in mind. (And by the way that’s why the Romney team meticulously planned out the long game on a primary-by-primary basis.)

The temptation when the unexpected happens is to either over-interpret the phenomenon or ignore it. There are many anxious to declare this the beginning of Romney’s “collapse.” There are many ready (again) to crown Newt Gingrich the nominee. That’s just silly.

But it would also be a mistake to call Gingrich’s win in South Carolina merely the biggest in-kind donation in political history by Juan Williams and John King. Surely those two debate performances were essential to Gingrich’s victory, but there is something else at play. Romney had hoped Gingrich would implode on his own; That isn’t happening.

Romney wrote a pre-campaign book called “No Apology.” He meant it as the touchstone of his conservative agenda. But he should take it to heart.

In this case that means embracing the role of rich businessman. (Now stick with me on this.) Warren Buffet doesn’t apologize for investing in troubled companies and pressing for them to reduce staff. Bill Gates doesn’t seem defensive about his wealth and lets everyone know how much money he gives away. And Gingrich himself, whose wealth is nearly entirely attributable to Washington power politics, doesn’t mind letting the country know that he’s a millionaire.

For Romney that means using his success and expertise to his advantage. Gingrich talks about “looting”; Romney should tell him he doesn’t know what he’s talking about and give him a one-minute course on private equity. The tax-returns addicts are nagging Romney? Release the returns for the past five years, highlight his charitable giving and ask why Gingrich’s charitable giving is so appallingly low for a man of his wealth (2.6 percent). It seems that Gingrich, who touts his religiosity, doesn’t tithe and doesn’t give much to the charities he extols. Not even to zoos.

This approach also means questioning Gingrich’s “pious baloney” when it comes to free-market capitalism. In Thursday’s debate Romney told Gingrich that he wouldn’t let him use four years in the speakership to take credit for his 25 years in business. That was one of his most effective moments in the race. And while we are talking about how one earns a living, Romney should press Gingrich on his lobbying career. He did lobby, multiple members of Congress say he did and Gingrich is engaged in typical delusional thinking to say he wasn’t.

And it means directly confronting Gingrich with the obvious contradiction at the heart of his campaign and life: He’s a conservative infatuated with government. He’s got a million ideas for how government should spend money and subsidize his brainstorms. He has made his livelihood in the nexus between big business and big government. He is the quintessential crony capitalist. Romney can honestly say: “I’m a real capitalist. Newt’s the crony capitalist.”

As Larry Kudlow points out, one of Romney’s shining moments in the debate was this riff:

“You’ve got to stop the spread of crony capitalism. (Obama) gives General Motors to the UAW. He takes $500 million and sticks it into Solyndra. He stacks the labor stooges on the NLRB so they can say no to Boeing and take care of their friends in the labor movement. . . . He has to bow to the most extreme members of the environmental movement. He turns down the Keystone pipeline, which would bring energy and jobs to America.
“My view is capitalism works. Free enterprise works. . . . There’s nothing wrong with profit, by the way. That profit went to pension funds, to charities. It went to a wide array of institutions. . . . And by the way, as enterprises become more profitable, they can hire more people. I’m someone who believes in free enterprise. I think Adam Smith was right. And I’m gonna stand and defend capitalism across this country, throughout this campaign. I know we’re going to get hit hard from President Obama, but we’re gonna stuff it down his throat and point out that it is capitalism and freedom that makes America strong.”

(Take a few minutes and listen to Kudlow, Jim Pethokoukis and others discuss the strengths and shortcomings of Romney’s defense of capitalism to date.)

That entire argument is equally applicable to Gingrich who would like to give ethanol producers, government-owned mortgage companies and Big Pharm the support of the taxpayers but blanches when private businesses reduce their workforce or reorganize in bankruptcy proceedings to remain profitable.

Gingrich is ill-equipped to make the crony capitalism argument against Obama. Hence, with a Gingrich nomination, both the individual mandate and crony capitalism would be off the table.

In fact, Gingrich has never been a limited-government advocate. Instead, he has latched onto, as Kudlow put it, every new activist-government fad (e.g., individual mandate, global warming). The worst part of Gingrich’s kids-as-janitors idea (aside from how politically ridiculous it is) is that he thinks that the president should be telling schools in every state how to run their janitorial staffs.

To conduct this offensive, Romney will have to put aside the notion he can run his primary campaign solely by attacking President Obama. And it means getting over the hesitancy to get into a back-and-forth with Gingrich. Rick Santorum showed brilliantly on Thursday how to pin Gingrich down and keep him on the defensive. Romney did it himself when he forced Gingrich in the last debate to “pass” after Romney’s fiery retort on abortion subsidies. When confronted directly with specifics and without the ability to attack the media, Gingrich is at a disadvantage.

In other words, Romney has to beat Gingrich, not simply hope that he’ll self-destruct. He can bemoan the foolishness of voters selecting a candidate because he told off two news people. But Gingrich is as skillful as he is unprincipled at that game. That’s why Gingrich never gives up: He’s shameless. That in turn requires a certain ruthlessness by Gingrich’s opponents. Santorum showed a flash of it. Can Romney?