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Gingrich rode big debate skills — and homeboy Southern style — to S.C. victory

  • McClatchy Newspapers
  • Published Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012, at 6:48 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012, at 10:43 a.m.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Former House Speaker Gingrich’s victory in Saturday’s Republican primary here is a testament to him sticking to an unconventional campaign strategy that many experts dismissed as political suicide.

Low on campaign funds and light on the traditional ground organization, Gingrich gained steam from his performances in the plethora of televised Republican debates and by doing as much free media — radio and TV interviews — as he could.

In TV debates, viewers saw both the New and Old Newt. In early debates when as many as eight candidates crowded the stage, Gingrich was the New Newt; the intellectual adult in the room, mellowed by time, the love of his third wife and a conversion to Catholicism.

In South Carolina, as the Republican field narrowed and attacks on him escalated, Gingrich channeled the Old Newt from his decades in the House of Representatives: the take-no-prisoners rhetorical bomb-thrower who suffers no fools.

He aggressively whacked away at Romney for his work at the private equity firm Bain Capital — much to the chagrin of GOP leaders — all but taunted Romney to make his income tax returns public, and portrayed him as a squishy Massachusetts moderate who speaks French.

He also turned up the heat on his favorite targets: President Barack Obama, liberal elites, and the news media. And South Carolina Republican voters loved it.

Gingrich’s fire-breathing rhetorical style and Georgia roots made him as comfy a fit in South Carolina, which launched the Civil War, as New Hampshire was for ex-Massachusetts governor Romney.

If Gingrich wins the Republican presidential nomination, Orangeburg County Republican Party chair Roy Lindsey thinks the former House speaker owes Juan Williams a bottle of fine champagne.

“Juan Williams is the best thing that ever happened to Newt Gingrich,” Lindsey said.

Lindsey believes that Gingrich’s response to a question posed in Monday’s televised debate by Williams helped propel Gingrich to victory in South Carolina Saturday night. Williams, an African-American analyst on Fox News, asked Gingrich if he understood that his comments about poor children lacking a work ethic and needing to work as school janitors offended many African-Americans.

“No, I don’t see that,” Gingrich defiantly replied, to loud applause in the Myrtle Beach Convention Center. He later added: “And if that makes liberals unhappy, I’m going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a better job and learn some day to own the job.”

That exchange helped put Gingrich over the top in South Carolina, in Lindsey’s estimation.

“I was there in the hall that night and I was hoping someone would give Newt an opening, and Juan did,” Lindsey said. “I love it when Newt takes the media to task, and other people like it, too. Juan was worth 2-3 points, I guarantee you that.”

Gingrich saw the results of his answer the very next day when a woman at a campaign event told the Georgia Republican: “I would like to thank you for putting Mister Juan Williams in his place the other night. His supposed question was totally ludicrous and we support you.”

Even ex-wife Marianne Gingrich’s interview with ABC News, in which she alleged that Gingrich asked her in 1999 for an “open marriage,” did little to dissuade South Carolina voters from Gingrich.

“I think that woman just wants money. Otherwise why would she do that?” Carole Greene, a 71-year-old retiree from Elloree, S.C., said Friday before cheering Gingrich on at a rally in Orangeburg, S.C. “He (Gingrich) is the smartest one. I was thinking about Romney, but he’s gone liberal.”

Gingrich's contemptuous put-down of CNN's moderator John King at Thursday night's debate played to the same GOP sentiment as had his thumping of Juan Williams. When King asked him in the opening question to respond to his ex-wife's allegation, Gingrich turned on him and said making that the initial topic of a presidential debate was a "destructive, vicious, negative" example of the "elite media" protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans — "as close to despicable as anything I can imagine."

The audience gave him a standing ovation — and South Carolina voters soon gave him a victory.

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