Candidate Profile: Newt Gingrich - "The Conservative Alternative"
After roller-coaster ride in South Carolina, Gingrich fights to reclaim his Palmetto State frontrunner status ahead of Saturday primary
In Newt Gingrich's own words, he "must win" South Carolina's primary this Saturday.
Despite a bravura performance in a national TV debate Monday night in Myrtle Beach, at least one new poll shows frontrunner Mitt Romney's lead widening with just three days left.
What not too long ago appeared Gingrich's state to lose increasingly appears lost.
Yet Gingrich supporters and admirers in the state remain ever hopeful that the candidate — who bills himself "the conservative alternative" to Romney — can still prevail.
"I think there is going to be a big surprise come Saturday," said Lexington GOP activist Deborah Myers, who is wavering between supporting either Gingrich or Rick Santorum. "I think conservatives will either coalesce behind Newt, or they will coalesce behind Santorum — and I feel it's going to be Newt."
Last August, neither South Carolina nor the race in general seemed very important to Gingrich, mired in single digits in state and national polls.
In fact, many pundits and analysts jested — only half-jokingly — that his campaign was merely a prop to increase his profile to charge higher speaker's fees and sell more books.
Both he and wife Callista had new books out and many campaign events seemed little more than glorified book signings, with the couple accompanied by a goofy elephant mascot who took pictures with the crowd as the Gingrich's sat and signed.
And the way the campaign started only fueled speculation that Gingrich was not to be considered a serious candidate, only a hapless one who was quickly given up for dead.
For barely had the Georgia Republican and 90's era U.S. House Speaker announced his candidacy did a plague of political locusts descend in biblical proportions upon him.
And then came the scandal over six-figure debts incurred by third-wife Callista's alleged penchant for expensive jewelry, while great swaths of the country suffered from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
And those were just some of the lowlights of perhaps one of the most calamitous campaign rollouts in recent memory.
The debate maestro
But when candidate debates began in earnest (a nationally televised debate in Charleston on Thursday will be the 17th so far), something happened.
Newt Gingrich, the once-forgotten candidate, began to surge.
"That's when I sat up and took notice," said Rodney Whitney, a part-time resident of Myrtle Beach who attended Monday night's GOP presidential debate.
"He had such a command of issues. He never wavered. And I loved how he stuck it to the media. And he has ideas, too. I think it was about the fifth or sixth debate where I said, 'This is my guy. This is the man who can beat Barack Obama.' I've yet to see him lose a debate yet. And he simply nailed it here (in Myrtle Beach). He was so head and shoulders above the others it was unbelievable.
"You should have been in there when he received that standing ovation," Whitney added. "That was the only one of the night. And it was something. Literally, a massive chill went down my spine."
Gingrich himself pinned his surge on his debates, as well as his "21st Century Contract with America." That document harkened back to his original Contract with America and perhaps his greatest political triumph, when he led a Republican revolution in the 1990s that saw the party assume majority control of the House after 40 years in the wilderness.
Early after the debates began, Gingrich indeed saw his fortunes rise, and they rose the furthest in South Carolina.
Within a matter of months, after flirtations with Michele Bachmann, then Herman Cain, then Rick Perry, the state's GOP voters suddenly seemed to go all-in for Gingrich. A candidate who in August saw his state poll numbers hovering at around 5 percent suddenly had a solid double-digit over the nearest challenger.
"I am going to win South Carolina, and I am going to be the nominee," Gingrich said on several occasions. And despite the candidate's hubris, it sure looked like he might be right.
On top of his galvanizing debate performances, Gingrich quickly amassed a serious South Carolina campaign.
He beefed up his paid in-state staff to more than a dozen operatives, put together a bevy of statewide grassroots campaign captains and volunteers, beefed up his social media, and actively sought and received numerous endorsements, including many from across the state's fractured network of local Tea Party organizations.
One of those Tea Party endorsers was Joe Dugan, who reiterated his support of Gingrich on Tuesday, the day after the Myrtle Beach debate, which coincided with the state Tea Party Convention. Dugan is chairman of the Myrtle Beach Tea Party.
"I feel more strongly than ever about my personal endorsement and conviction that Newt Gingrich is the strongest possible candidate for the Republican nomination for President of the United States," Dugan stated, adding that 75 percent of his membership has endorsed Gingrich.
"In ordinary times we have been able to get by with ordinary presidents and life goes on. However these are the most extraordinary of times and they demand an extraordinary leader who possesses the skills to deal with enormity of the crises currently facing our country," Dugan said.
"My decision to enthusiastically endorse Speaker Gingrich," he added, "is based on my belief that he and he alone, possesses the talents, experience and wisdom required to successfully bring us back from the brink."
Somewhere along the way, Gingrich also somehow managed to shake what many considered his Achilles heel in South Carolina — his marital life. Thrice-married, Gingrich has been assailed for divorcing his first wife as she struggled with cancer, then carrying on a six-year affair with Callista while married to his second wife.
For whatever reason, many of the state's values voters and socially conservative evangelicals turned a blind eye. At a town hall event in Newberry in November, Gingrich addressed the morality question from a member of the audience.
When posed questions, Gingrich may expound for several minutes. On that night, his response was short and simple: "My moral foundation is a belief in God and a sense that all of us are imperfect and have to seek both mercy and reconciliation with God in order to have any hope of a reasonable life," he said to applause. Bomb defused. Next question, please….
Have the wheels come off?
While Gingrich surged to a commanding and seemingly insurmountable lead in South Carolina, he also saw his polling surge in Iowa and New Hampshire.
But suddenly, the wheels appeared to come off.
"I think he may have peaked a little too early," surmised one Tea Party supporter in Myrtle Beach who hails from Greenville.
Said another Tea Partier from Charleston attending this past weekend's convention: "I'll tell you what happened. It got nasty, that's what the hell happened."
Staring victory, or at least a very strong showing in Iowa in the face, the long knives came out from anti-Gingrich forces.
None were sharper than those from a Super-PAC aligned with Romney, which blanketed the state with unceasing negative ads that assailed Gingrich's personal life, his ethics problems while in Congress, an ad Gingrich did years ago with GOP pariah Nancy Pelosi, and Gingrich's personal enrichment while acting as an advisor to conservative bogeyman, the mortgage giant Freddie Mac.
Suddenly the Newt-mentum seemed to die, as Gingrich limped to middle-of-the-pack finishes in both Iowa, then New Hampshire.
With Romney increasingly seen, even among evangelicals and hard-core conservatives that originally opposed him, as the person most likely to beat Obama, Gingrich found himself struggling to regain ground.
One of the latest state polls, from Monmouth University, has Romney leading Gingrich by 11 points (33-22 percent), a seemingly insurmountable lead with little more than three days left to the primary.
But, like Myers said, watch out.
It may not be over yet for Gingrich in South Carolina by a long shot, and in the race in general. Indeed, conservatives may in fact be coalescing behind Gingrich just as Myers said she suspects they will.
Perhaps there is some truth there: Romney forces are unleashing new ads in the state against Gingrich this week that had been shelved previously, a that there is great fear in the Romney camp, supporters contend.
And, new reports from Gingrich forces indicate that internal polling shows their candidate much, much closer than that Monmouth poll indicates.
Plus, Gingrich still has one more debate in South Carolina to pound away at Romney's lead. "That's his strength, those debates," said Whitney. "I expect Newt to put a butt-whoopin' on Romney."
"I am still the only candidate that realistically has a shot" against Obama, Gingrich said at a campaign stop in the state this week. To get that shot, Gingrich will almost certainly have to win South Carolina this Saturday.
And hope springs eternal.
"I think come Saturday night," Whitney predicted, "you just might see a grinning Newt up on that stage, declaring, 'On to Florida!'"