When the polls closed in South Carolina on Saturday, I happened to be in a Charleston hotel lobby where elegantly dressed couples were filing past on their way to a black-tie event. A woman stopped and asked whether I had heard anything about the results.

“Newt’s winning big,” I said.

The woman’s face fell. “But if Newt wins,” she lamented, “then Obama wins.”

With the caveat that there are no guarantees, she has a point.

Newt Gingrich won a stunning victory in Saturday’s Republican primary, wiping the floor with Mitt Romney and reigniting a nomination battle that seemed to have burned itself out. Amid all the excitement, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that America has known Gingrich for three decades — and really doesn’t like him.

The most recent evidence is found in a Jan. 12-14 Fox News poll of registered voters nationwide — not just Republicans but Democrats and independents as well — showing that 56 percent of respondents had an unfavorable opinion of Gingrich, while only 27 percent viewed him favorably. In other words, his detractors outnumbered his admirers 2-1.

By contrast, 51 percent of those surveyed in the Fox poll had a favorable opinion of President Obama, while 46 percent had an unfavorable view. By a roughly similar margin, voters also had a positive opinion of Romney. Views about Ron Paul and Rick Santorum were slightly negative, the survey showed, but only by a few percentage points. No public figure named in the poll was remotely as unpopular as Gingrich.

And it’s not as if people don’t know the man. He has near-universal name recognition, pegged at 92 percent in the Fox poll and even higher in other surveys. Americans seem to be saying, “Yes, we’ve met Mr. Gingrich, and no, we don’t think we like him very much.”

Nearly identical results — 58 percent disapproval, 28 percent approval — were found in a CNN poll earlier this month. And this antipathy toward Gingrich is nothing new. A list of surveys over the past two years, compiled by the TalkingPointsMemo website, shows that the mercurial Gingrich is consistent in at least one thing: his unpopularity.

This is an enormous barrier standing between Gingrich and what he seems to believe is his destiny — the presidency. It’s hard enough for an unknown to forge a positive image, as Obama did in 2007 and 2008. It’s a far more difficult challenge for someone as familiar as Gingrich to change people’s minds.

So should champagne corks be popping at the White House? No, or at least not yet.

It’s important to remember that with unemployment at 8.5 percent and Republicans having won a sweeping victory in 2010, Obama faces an electoral headwind. The president’s job approval ratings — as opposed to his more favorable personal approval ratings — have improved, but only to about 45 percent.

And while most head-to-head polls have shown that Obama would annihilate Gingrich in November, it’s still hard to imagine that Gingrich will be the nominee.

That begowned, bejeweled woman who asked me so anxiously about the election results in Charleston was the very image of the Republican establishment, and I sensed in her voice more determination than despair. It is safe to assume that the empire will strike back, beginning with an all-out assault on the Gingrich insurgency in Florida.

Romney still has considerable advantages. He is competently staffed and organized in every state, unlike Gingrich, who won’t even be on the ballot in some contests — the important primary in Virginia, for example. Romney’s campaign has tons of money. And while the establishment’s seal of approval isn’t quite what it used to be, it does count for something.

But perhaps the most important thing we learned in South Carolina is that Romney has real vulnerabilities. His handling of questions about his vast wealth — how he earned it, how much he pays on it in taxes, why he has some of it parked in the Cayman Islands — showed a shocking lack of preparation. He let Gingrich get under his skin. In the end, he was soundly beaten by one of the most unpopular politicians in the country.

Suddenly, Romney’s biggest selling point — that he’s the one who can beat Obama — is in serious doubt. Yes, polls show him neck-and-neck with the president. But a couple of weeks ago, polls showed him 20 points ahead of Gingrich. Look what happened.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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