Newt Gingrich is on a roll. After finishing fourth in Iowa and sharing the fourth-place spot with Rick Santorum in New Hampshire, Gingrich has hit the reset button in South Carolina, where he is now surging in the polls, getting rave reviews for his latest debate performance and visibly brimming with confidence as he storms across the state.
The latest polls in South Carolina show a vastly different playing field for Gingrich than the earlier contests. Four recent polls show him placing second to Romney, by a 5- to 11-point margin, in the state where people still affectionately refer to him as “Mr. Speaker.”
“What went on in Iowa was one thing. What went on in New Hampshire is another,” said Rep. Bill Hixon, who represents Aiken, S.C., in the state House. Hixon has endorsed Texas Gov. Rick Perry, but he sounded like a Newt man Tuesday after Gingrich spoke to a packed house in Aiken. “You’re going to see the true presidential candidate come out of South Carolina, and right now I see Gingrich passing Romney.”
If Gingrich does revive his chances for the nomination here, it is clear he will have Juan Williams to thank for it. Williams is the Fox News personality who pressed Gingrich at Monday’s GOP debate Monday night about his earlier suggestion that kids in poor neighborhoods take jobs as school janitors to learn about work ethics and to make ends meet. But instead of apologizing for the concept, which Democrats blasted as racist, Gingrich doubled down on it as inherently American and something only a liberal elitist would despise.
The result—a thunderous (standing) ovation from the conservative audience in Myrtle Beach and, much more important, a second look from voters in the Palmetto State who will go to the polls on Saturday for the GOP presidential primary.
Hixon pinpointed Monday night’s debate as the moment Gingrich’s campaign turned around, and he was not the only one to say so. At an event in Columbia, S.C., earlier in the day, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee also singled out Gingrich’s performance. “Last night in the debate, I don’t know that I’ve ever, ever heard a more masterful presentation of the power of work and labor than was given by speaker Newt Gingrich,” Huckabee said.
By the time Gingrich got to the farmers’ market in West Columbia in the afternoon, a pattern had emerged.
“How about that debate last night? That was amazing,” said Rich Bolen, the chairman of the Lexington County (S.C.) Republican Party.
James Metts, the sheriff in Lexington County, said he had been undecided about Saturday’s election, until the Fox News debate. “After last night and the performance that the speaker gave ... there is absolutely no doubt who can turn this country around and can lead us back to the great country that we are,” Metts said.
What was it about that moment that moved those Republicans to get behind Gingrich? In a word, they say, it was backbone. Whether they agreed or disagreed with Gingrich on the wisdom or need for kids to roll up their sleeves in the janitor's closet (most agreed by the way), they all praised the way Gingrich not only came up with an idea but defended it.
Unlike Mitt Romney, who spent the better part of the debate explaining how and why he had evolved on some issues or just been misunderstood on others, Gingrich gave a full-throated defense for his own point of view. No blinking, no stammering, no stuttering.
“He was the smartest man in the room the other night,” said Eddie Nobels, who walked away from meeting Gingrich in Aiken with a signed baseball. “That’s what we need. We don’t need an Obama.”
Gingrich’s campaign is so convinced that more voters will feel the same way that they released an ad Tuesday night, simply called “The Moment,” with clips of Gingrich’s answer to Williams, and the standing ovation that followed.
But the campaign is also well aware that Gingrich is going to need a movement, not just a moment, to get in front of Mitt Romney as he plows toward the Republican nomination, powered not by Republicans’ love for the man, but by their sheer belief that he can beat Obama.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Tuesday showed that a full 72 percent of Republicans believe Romney will be their nominee in 2012, while just 7 percent of Republicans think Gingrich will be the eventual winner. That same poll shows Romney narrowly beating Obama in a head-to-head matchup, while Gingrich would lose 37 percent to 53 percent.
Gingrich took the electability question head-on Tuesday, trying any way possible to convince Republicans that Romney, a “timid Massachusetts moderate” would be the weakest candidate in November, not the strongest.
“If you look at the 15 debates we’ve had, ask yourself, ‘Do you want a Massachusetts moderate, or do you want a real conservative to go against a real radical so that when it’s done, you’re still for paychecks and he’s still for food stamps?’ And people get it.”
Gingrich’s job of beating Romney would be infinitely easier if three other men—Rick Perry, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum—weren’t also trying to do the same. Gingrich stated plainly Tuesday that Romney would not be winning if conservatives were not splitting their votes among the four men, but he said he had no plans to drop out of the race to clear the field.
In an interview with Laura Ingraham on her radio show, Gingrich was asked why he doesn’t just ask Santorum to leave the race. The former Pennsylvania senator has rebuffed the idea, pointing out that he performed significantly better than Gingrich or Perry in Iowa, and tied Gingrich in New Hampshire. If anyone should drop out, Santorum says, it’s not him.
“We certainly can communicate, and we do communicate with each other,” Gingrich said of Santorum. “But it’s pretty hard to ask a guy to give up his ambitions.”