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South Carolina: Gingrich's Last Stand?

Jan 18, 2012
Originally published on January 18, 2012 10:08 am

In South Carolina, the race to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney is hitting a fever pitch. The state is seen by many as the last stop before inevitability in the GOP primary.

In campaign stops Tuesday, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich laid out what sounded like an ultimatum.

"Your support the next four days could change history," Gingrich said, looking out into the audience at a large meeting of business leaders in the state's capital, Columbia. "If I win the primary Saturday, I will be the nominee."

Gingrich isn't one to shy away from bold predictions. But since 1980, every winner of the GOP primary in South Carolina has gone on to win the nomination. So for Gingrich and the other so-called non-Romneys in the race, South Carolina is essentially the last stand.

And Gingrich, not surprisingly, argues that he is the only candidate who can defeat President Obama come November.

"If I don't win the primary Saturday, we will probably nominate a moderate and the odds are fairly high he will lose to Obama," Gingrich said, not-so-subtly alluding to front-runner Romney. "You need somebody who's tough — somebody who's articulate."

And, he goes on, somebody you'd want to bet on in a debate against Obama.

Gingrich The Debater

Imagining a series of debates with the president has long been a staple of the Gingrich stump speech. But after Monday night's debate where he got a standing ovation, the idea of Gingrich the debater is again a key part of his pitch. The campaign quickly produced a new ad featuring that moment.

"This is the first time I have ever seen a standing ovation at a debate," says Lexington County Republican Party Chairman Rich Bolen, who endorsed Gingrich.

He thinks that debate may well have been a game changer. "It was spontaneous. It was all the people that were supporting all the different candidates, and they all stood up in unison for him. So that dynamic is what's changing people's minds."

Still Undecided

Well, maybe not everyone.

"I don't know that I trust him," says John Mitchell, who was at the debate and saw Gingrich speak again at the business event.

Mitchell says the former House speaker's debate performance was strong, but it didn't do anything to overcome his lingering concerns about Gingrich. "Maybe he's gotten older and he's changed over time. But for somebody who has skeletons in his closet and yet accuses others of things at the same time, I've got a problem with that," Mitchell says.

He remains undecided but says he's leaning toward Romney.

Allan Creighton has narrowed his choice down to two: Gingrich and Romney. He says Gingrich's closing argument at the business event did strike a chord with him.

"I think it's a good point he makes — whichever one wins in South Carolina will probably become the Republican nominee," Creighton says.

But when asked if that made his decision for him, he laughs. "No, not completely."

He's not alone. Many South Carolina Republicans are torn. And at this point, unless there is a dramatic shift in the next few days, the non-Romney vote will be divided among Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum and, to a lesser extent, Rick Perry, who trails well behind in recent polls.

Gingrich, who has more events in the state Wednesday, will no doubt keep pitching himself as the only Republican with the heft and credentials to take on the president.

"If I am the Republican nominee, we will run a campaign of paychecks vs. food stamps," Gingrich says. "And we will beat Obama virtually everywhere in this country."

That is a big if, however, because Romney, Santorum, Perry and Paul are not backing down from this fight.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's turn to the presidential contest now in the U.S. In South Carolina, the race to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney is hitting a fever pitch. Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Rick Perry are all going after Romney. But some of the most forceful attacks are coming from Newt Gingrich.

NPR's Tamara Keith reports on the pitch from the former speaker of the House.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: At a large meeting of business leaders in Columbia, South Carolina yesterday afternoon, Newt Gingrich looked out at the audience and made what amounts to a closing argument.

NEWT GINGRICH: Your support in the next four days can change history. If I win the primary Saturday, I will be the nominee.

KEITH: Gingrich isn't one to shy away from bold predictions. But since 1980, every winner of the GOP primary in South Carolina has gone on to win the nomination. So for Gingrich and the other so-called non-Romneys in the race, South Carolina is essentially the last stand. And Gingrich, not surprisingly, argues he is the only candidate who can defeat President Obama come November.

GINGRICH: And if I don't win the primary Saturday, we will probably nominate a moderate and the odds are fairly high he will lose to Obama. You need somebody who is tough, somebody's who's articulate...

KEITH: And he goes on - somebody you'd want to bet on in a debate against Barack Obama. Imagining a series of debates with President Obama has long been a staple of the Gingrich stump speech. But after Monday night's debate where he got a standing ovation, the idea of Gingrich the debater is again a key part of his pitch. By yesterday evening, the campaign had already cut a new ad, featuring that moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

KEITH: Judging from the introductions at Gingrich events yesterday, you'd think everyone was talking about it.

MIKE HUCKABEE: Last night in the debate, I don't know that I've ever, ever heard a more masterful presentation of the power of work...

JIMMY METTS: But after last night, there is absolutely no doubt who can turn this country around, that can lead us back to the great country that we are.

RICH BOLEN: How about that debate last night? That was amazing.

KEITH: Those were, in order of appearance, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Lexington County Sheriff Jimmy Metts, and the county's Republican Party chairman, Rich Bolen. Bolen has endorsed Gingrich and says he thinks that debate may well have been a game changer.

BOLEN: This is the first time I've ever seen a standing ovation at a debate. And he just had that effect on the audience. I mean, it was spontaneous, it was all the people that were supporting the different candidates and they all stood up in unison for him. So that dynamic is what's changing people's minds.

KEITH: Well, maybe not everyone. John Mitchell was at the debate and saw Gingrich speak again yesterday afternoon at the business event. He says the former speaker's debate performance was strong, but it didn't do anything to overcome his lingering concerns about Gingrich.

JOHN MITCHELL: I don't know that I trust him. Maybe he's gotten older and he's changed over time, you know. But for somebody who has skeletons in his closet and yet accuses others of things at the same time, I've got a problem with that.

KEITH: Mitchell remains undecided, but he's leaning towards Romney. Allan Creighton has narrowed his choice down to two.

ALLAN CREIGHTON: Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney.

KEITH: And Creighton says Gingrich's closing argument did strike a chord with him.

CREIGHTON: I think it's a good point he makes. Whichever one wins in South Carolina will probably become the Republican nominee.

KEITH: But it didn't make you hands-down decide to vote for him.

CREIGHTON: No, not completely.

KEITH: A colleague who plans to vote for Gingrich says she'll keep twisting Creighton's arm until he sees it her way. And Gingrich will keep pitching himself as the only Republican with the hefty credentials to take on President Obama.

GINGRICH: If I am the Republican nominee, we will run a campaign of paychecks versus food stamps and we will beat Obama virtually everywhere in this county.

KEITH: That, however, is a big if, since Romney, Santorum, Perry and Paul are not backing down from this fight. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Columbia, South Carolina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.