Newt Gingrich: Unscathed by Marianne’s Cheating Charges in South Carolina?

The second Mrs. Gingrich is creating a media firestorm on the eve of the South Carolina primary. But voters there seem inclined to take it out on the press. By Andrew Romano.

01.20.12 12:05 AM ET

So you think the latest revelations about Newt Gingrich’s sloppy personal life—you know, the whole tawdry to-do about him asking his second wife, Marianne, for an “open marriage” so he could sleep with his then-mistress Callista at the same time he was delivering speeches around the country on family values—will sink the former House Speaker in the deeply Christian, devoutly conservative state of South Carolina?

Think again.

If most of Gingrich’s Palmetto State supporters are like Joseph and Kathy Wilson—and the vast majority of those I spoke to Thursday were—then Newt is in luck.

I met the Wilsons on the waterfront in handsome Beaufort, S.C. (Beaufort is where they filmed The Big Chill and The Prince of Tides. It’s all wraparound porches, Spanish moss, and Pat Conroy vistas. You get the picture.) Joseph, 67, was wearing a camouflage cap, aviators, and a brown, yellow, and red flannel shirt; Kathy, 64, was in a white puffy coat and a long red scarf.

We were all waiting for Gingrich to arrive, so I figured I’d strike up a conversation. The first reports about Marianne’s ABC interview had just surfaced on Twitter a few minutes earlier, as I was pulling into town from Charleston; I assumed I’d be the one to break the news to them, and I was curious to see how they would react.

“So, have you heard about this thing with Newt’s second wife?” I asked.

“I’ve heard,” Joseph said. I was surprised. Had these two been obsessively checking the Politico app on their iPhones or something?

But then I asked what they thought of the charges, and Joseph said something that surprised me even more.

“It might be true,” Joseph replied. “But it’s no big deal. Newt might have asked for it, but why is she telling it now—”

“It was 20 years ago!” Kathy said.

“—instead of then,” Joseph continued. “Now the article’s coming out?”

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Kathy cut in again. “Twenty years ago—that’s a long time,” she said. “And I know that women don’t get over things, but still. If my country was in the shape it’s in now, and I knew that one man, basically, was responsible for it, and my ex-husband could set things right, I could put my country before my feelings from 20 years ago.”

Joseph nodded. “All of a sudden, now Newt’s fixing to come ahead, he might beat Romney here, and so what’s happened? The left has given his ex-wife a couple million dollars to run her mouth.”

For a second, I was speechless. These were informed voters—the kind who kept up on all the latest political developments. They were practicing Christians, married for decades. They were conservatives. From South Carolina. As Joseph put it, “Down here in the South, we’re moral.” And yet, after hearing that their pick for president may have proposed open marriage to his wife of 18 years, they were more upset at the media than at the man himself.

Then I remembered Herman Cain—or, more specifically, the dozen or so Iowans who told me, right before the caucuses, that they would’ve voted for Herman Cain if the media hadn’t forced him from the race. Not his serial infidelities, mind you. The media.

My hunch is that Marianne’s revelations will inspire a similar sort of antimedia backlash here in South Carolina. Conservatives are already aware of Newt’s checkered past. He’s already apologized. His affairs are already priced in. And who else are hard-core conservatives going to run to? Rick Perry? He just dropped out. Rick Santorum? He’s stalled at 11 percent in the polls. Ron Paul? His foreign policy is a no-go. Romney? Please.

The Wilsons’ message to me was simple, and it was echoed by almost all of the conservatives I spoke to Thursday: this whole Marianne business isn’t proof of Newt’s weakness, it’s proof of his strength (and all the more reason to vote for him)! “I think this is a lot of political backwash to get Romney up in front,” Joseph said. “The über-left is doing whatever they can to destroy Newt, because they don’t think Obama can handle him. He knows too much history, he knows Obama’s tactics, and he would out-debate him. Obama would be lost.”

Joseph paused for a few second, staring out across the estuary. “Romney’s a businessman, not a fighter,” he finally said. “But Gingrich will tear Obama’s butt up. That’s the bottom line. That’s why I support him. He’s the one who can knock Obama down.”