Gingrich offensive redraws race
Attacks on media, Romney erase 15-point deficit
ORANGEBURG, S.C. - The wild ride of the South Carolina primary campaign is about to end, and no matter how the voting goes today, Newt Gingrich has lived to fight another day.
When he staggered out of New Hampshire with a fifth-place finish, Gingrich’s candidacy barely had a pulse. But living by his wits in South Carolina, Gingrich bent the campaign to his will, throwing front-runner Mitt Romney off his game and on the defensive.
The former House speaker is roaring to the finish line of today’s crucial primary following a wild thrill ride in the Palmetto State. Overcoming a deficit of 15 or more points in the polls in a matter of days, Gingrich seemed to feed off the balmier climate and the even warmer reception he received in the South.
Win or lose today, he will head to Florida for the crucial Jan. 31 primary that could determine how long the Republican nominating contest goes on.
The campaign takes its first day off tomorrow and heads to Florida’s Gulf Coast on Monday for an event in the Tampa area.
Gingrich, at a town hall meeting in Orangeburg in the South Carolina’s midlands yesterday afternoon, amplified his appeal to conservatives to rally around him to stop Romney.
“The only effective conservative vote to stop a Massachusetts moderate is to vote for me,’’ he told a crowd of several hundred here. “That’s what all the polls are showing.’’
In one of the nation’s most conservative states, Gingrich repeatedly served up big daily helpings of political red meat to a Republican base seething with anger and searching for a candidate who can beat President Obama in November.
South Carolina has been hit hard by the recession, and Gingrich’s blistering rhetoric and unwavering certitude plays well here. He often reminds South Carolinians that he is a “Georgia conservative.’’ The two states share a long border.
Gingrich received standing ovations at both televised debates in South Carolina this week, lashing out at the news media, a favorite target of conservatives and Gingrich. At many Gingrich events, supporters hold signs that say “Don’t believe the liberal media.’’
When Fox News panelist Juan Williams suggested in the state’s first debate that Gingrich was belittling poor people with his incessant attacks on food stamps and references to Obama as the “food stamp president,’’ Gingrich retorted that food stamps are being distributed at record levels and he will “continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job, and learn some day to own the job.’’
When moderator John King of CNN opened Thursday night’s debate by asking about his second wife’s statement during an ABC interview that Gingrich had requested an “open marriage,’’ Gingrich went on the attack.
After criticizing the “destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media,’’ Gingrich said that injecting his past marital problems into the campaign two days before the primary “is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.’’
He received a standing ovation from those in the room.
Gingrich’s declaration that recipients of unemployment benefits should be required to take job training courses always gets applause, particularly when he says, “Never again will we give money to somebody for 99 weeks for doing nothing.’’
Critics suggest that Gingrich’s harsh rhetoric has race-tinged overtones, a charge that he brushes off as the whining of liberals invested in the status quo.
A recurring theme of his remarks is to draw a sharp line between those who contribute to government and those who benefit from safety-net programs. In South Carolina the audiences are the contributors and they like it when he calls Obama “the most radical and may I say most incompetent president we’ve had in our lifetime.’’
He promises sweeping change to solve seemingly every ill of government and society: credit card companies to end fraud in Medicare, drilling for American energy sources to free the nation from foreign oil, tax cuts, and budget cuts to end the deficits.
Wrapping himself in the mantle of Ronald Reagan, he ticks off the job creation numbers of that era and when he was speaker of the House.
The message resonates here more than it did in New Hampshire and Iowa.
Mayor Paul Miller of Orangeburg said he was “leaning toward Newt’’ as he entered yesterday’s event. “I think he’s the only person who can beat Obama,’’ he said. “He’s got the fortitude to take him on.’’
Anna Stewart, a retired teacher from Orangeburg, said she watches Gingrich “all the time on Fox News. . . . He’s the smartest man in the room.’’
“Newt’s got intestinal fortitude, and that’s what I like,’’ Stewart said.
Aided by the twin debates, Gingrich certainly caught fire. But Florida is a much different and more expensive state for a candidate who has struggled to compete with the better-funded Romney.
Gingrich’s campaign was especially pleased by his ability to push Romney off stride and force him to talk about issues that made him seem awkward: Bain Capital’s practices, his tax returns, and his position on abortion.
Until recently, the campaign had been unable to put the former Massachusetts governor on the defensive.
Asked yesterday about Romney’s call for the release of the full ethics report that resulted in Gingrich’s reprimand and $300,000 fine in Congress, Gingrich was brusque.
He said he believes the 900-page report is available on the Internet.
Beyond that, Gingrich said, “He doesn’t release anything . . . and he decides to pick a fight with me on releasing something? . . . I refuse to take seriously any request from the Romney campaign to disclose anything.’’
Brian C. Mooney can be reached at email@example.com.