Newt Gingrich won Saturday's South Carolina primary by 14 points.
Newt Gingrich completed one of the more dramatic turnarounds in modern GOP history on Saturday, erasing a double-digit deficit in the final week of the campaign to trounce Mitt Romney in the South Carolina Republican primary by 14 points. The major networks called the race immediately after polls closed at 7 p.m. By the time Gingrich finally made his appearance at a Columbia victory party two hours and countless Jock Jams tracks later, his supporters had been whooped into a frenzy. Gingrich was happy to egg the crowd on, promising supporters he'd run an "American campaign" to save America from a "Saul Alinsky radicalist."
"In the two debates that we had here, in Myrtle Beach and in Charleston, where people reacted so strongly to the news media, I think there was something very fundamental that I wish the powers that be in the news media would take seriously," Gingrich said. "The American people feel that they have…elites who have been trying for a half a century to force us to quit being American and become some other system. And people completely misunderstand what's going on: It's not that I had a good debate; it is that I articulate the deepest-felt values in the American people."
Saturday's result brings to an end a terrible week for Romney, who in just a few days has gone from looking like he'd be the first candidate ever to win the first three Republican nominating contests to having a 1-for-3 record. (Romney was originally thought to have won Iowa, but a more complete count eventually gave former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum the victory.) Now the race is headed into a state—Florida—that Gingrich has always considered a firewall. Pundits can quibble over the larger significance, but one thing's very clear: Gingrich won the South Carolina race in the last week. And he did it by effectively exploiting the medium that he promises (over and over and over and over) will carry him to victory in November—the debates. According to the Associated Press' exit poll, two thirds of South Carolina voters said they made up their minds after last week's two debates. Of that cohort, 50 percent went for Gingrich.
"He killed it in the debates; he knocked it into orbit on Monday," said Mackie Christenson, who flew down from Leesburg, Virginia, to volunteer for the campaign. And now that she's on board, she's seeing the campaign in a new light: "To me it's like Winston Churchill. They threw out Winston Churchill then they had a war they had to bring him back in. He's like a bull in a china shop. Sometimes you gotta break some cups and plates to make a difference."
"I don't like that he's payin' 15 percent and I'm payin' 28. It doesn't make sense to me."
Bill and Linda Norwood of Columbia speak in unison when I ask them who they voted for outside their polling place—"Newt"—and again when I ask when they made up their minds—"the debates." Another last-minute development also influenced their vote. "I don't like taxes," Bill said. "I don't like people who got all that money and won't tell you about it. I don't like that [Romney is] payin' 15 percent and I'm payin' 28. It doesn't make sense to me, so it was just a bunch of things." Gingrich, on the other hand, is a man who, "sometimes says things he shouldn't" but "doesn't need notes and stuff like that."
The debate bump had two parts. One was reactionary—voters felt that Gingrich had put Fox News' Juan Williams in his place for suggesting that Gingrich might have been racially insensitive when he called President Obama a "food stamp president." As one voter told me, "When I hear the Juans of the world, I get upset." The second is more, to use a word Gingrich is fast making his own, grandiose. For the last week, in hunting lodges and barbecue huts and even a decommissioned aircraft carrier, Gingrich hammered home a pledge he’s been making for months: If he's the nominee, he'll challenge Obama to a series of Lincoln-Douglas debates across the country.
It's a perfect proposition: If Obama accepts, Gingrich will wipe the floor with him; if he declines, he'll make the White House schedule his own and show up wherever the president campaigns to deliver a rebuttal four hours later. Noting that Obama recently traveled to Orlando to hold a town hall meeting—"I can't wait to see the picture of President Obama standing between Mickey Mouse and Goofy"—Gingrich told an audience in Walterboro on Thursday that he was getting ready to book his own ticket to Disney World. Romney banked his campaign on the idea that Republicans, more than anything, want a candidate who can beat Obama. He just didn't expect them to want to be able to watch it on TV, too.
Gingrich also benefited from Romney's failings—and those of his supporters. Burch Antley of Columbia made up his mind to vote for Gingrich "when Gov. Nikki Haley supported Mitt Romney." That's consistent with a Monmouth poll released last week that noted that 21 percent of South Carolinians said the endorsement of their state's Republican governor made them "less likely" to support Romney.
Now it's on to Florida, a state Gingrich has cultivated for months, but where he's still trailing by double digits according to the most recent polls and where it's expensive to campaign and advertise. (Romney starts off with a large organizational advantage there; even before the Gingrich surge in South Carolina, his campaign strategists were looking to Florida as the all-important showdown.) A repeat of Gingrich's South Carolina triumph will be complicated by the fact that due to early voting, Floridians have been casting absentee ballots for three weeks. In his victory speech on Saturday night, Gingrich acknowledged steep odds: "Anyone here, who knows anyone in Florida, please contact them at some point tomorrow." If it's any consolation for Gingrich, though, there's this: The next debate is on Monday.
There are several different ways of dealing with a heckler: One is to ignore it, another is issue a passive-aggressive "Thank God for the First Amendment" line; on Friday night, Newt Gingrich went with option number-three—what I guess you'd call the "Chris Christie."
No sooner had his speech aboard the USS Yorktown begun when an audience member shouted from the crowd: "Why won't you release your ethics report? When will you release your ethics report?" Turning to face his inquisitor, Gingrich returned fire: "I you would do a little research instead of shouting mindlessly, you'll discover that they're online at the Thomas system, and you can print them out and read it. It's about 900 pages, and when you get done reading it, let me know if you have any questions." Boom. When the heckling persisted, Newt droped a zinger. "I assume you're for the guy who won't release his income tax," he said, taking a shot at Mitt Romney.
The man continued shouting for a little while (countered by an "Off with his head!" chant from a woman right behind me, in reference to the heckler) and finally conceded defeat after a persistent "Go Newt, Go!" chant broke out. It was, in addition to being impolite, a pretty inartfully worded question, which Gingrich took advantage of to avoid the actual substance. There's a difference between the ethics reportsthat are public record at Thomas, and the sealed documents from the Gingrich ethics investigation that are currently not public record. Gingrich has been less than upfront on the latter, which is part of the reason Romney is now demanding he release them.
The exchange was noteworthy, though, for the tone. Gingrich didn't let the heckler off the hook; angry retorts are what propelled him to the top of the polls (the most recent one from Public Policy put him up nine points over Romney in South Carolina) and he believes this tone is going to keep him there, whether the victim is Juan Williams, John King, or an anonymous Romney supporter. "It's not so much what's wrong with the other candidates," said Burnie Acufff of Charleston, when I asked him why he's volunteering for Newt. "I feel that Newt has got the scar tissue and callouses to put up with Washington, DC." He won't sit back and take it, in other words.
On stage aboard the Yorktown, Gingrich did his best to present himself as a sober, seasoned, future commander in chief—serial abuse of Godwin's law notwithstanding. The rally took place aboard the Yorktown, a decommissioned aircraft carrier which has been converted into a floating museum in Charleston Harbor and—should the occasion arise—possesses enough WWII-era bombers and old anti-aircraft guns to keep the Nazis off the beaches of the low-country until reinforcements can arrive. Gingrich delivered his remarks in front of a 30-foot-long American flag and just out of camera shot from the hanging innards of a Navy chopper, an old QH-50 with a 72 hp Gyrodyne-Porsch reciprocating engine. He was introduced by retired Marine Gen. James Livingston (a Medal of Honor recipient), who had switched endorsements from Rick Perry to Gingrich earlier in the week, and gave a nod to the ship's history in the Pacific theater (making a quick "politically incorrect" joke about speaking Japanese). He began with a moment of silence for America and French soldiers who had recently been killed in Pakistan.
Photo by Tim MurphyAnd, flanked by his wife, Callista, and a troop of Boy Scouts (here on a field trip) he'd invited to join him on stage, Newt made his final pitch to South Carolinians: "I want you to know that should I be honored and have the opportunity to serve as president, I will take to the White House, the memory of this evening on this ship, and the courage of the man who introduced me, and the patriotism of the people who came here, and the young people to whom we owe the presidency, and I will dedicate myself to do everything that I can to make sure that they grow up in a country worthy of their future." He left the stage to a chorus of "Newt! Newt! Newt! Newt!" For a moment it felt like 1994 all over again.
Of course, this being South Carolina, some military imagery was more tasteful than others. Gingrich's first endorser at Friday night's speech decided to kick off his speech with a little bit of history: "Charleston has been the place of a lot of historic firings, like the firing of the first shot at Fort Sumter," said Bobby Harrell, the state's Republican speaker of the house. "Tomorrow, we will do another firing—when we fire Barack Obama from the White House!"
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney pictured with Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2009.
On the campaign trial, Mitt Romney hammers home his marital history every chance he can get—he used his opening statement at Thursday's debate to tout the fact he's been married for 42 years, he lets his wife speak at campaign stops, and he's incorporated the endearingly awkward story of how they met into his stump speech. But his campaign surrogates draw the line when it comes to attacking Newt Gingrich's personal life.
After Romney's rally in North Charleston on Friday afternoon, I asked Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Romney supporter and one of the party's rising social conservative stars, whether voters should be concerned about recent comments made by Gingrich's second ex-wife, Marianne. "Look, as far as I'm concerned, Newt has answered that question," McDonnell said. "And that's an issue for him to address. What people care about right now: They care about getting people back to work, getting the greatest country on Earth out of debt, and having the kind of leadership in Washington we can be proud of. And that's really why we're here supporting Mitt Romney, but all those other questions Newt can handle on his own."
"All I'll say is that everybody that I know...has made some mistakes in their life."
But didn't McDonnell, who railed against "alternative lifestyle living arrangements" in his master's thesis, have any concerns about the reported open marriage? "That's not what people are talking about in the campaign," he said. "They're talking about how we're going to get people to get back to work. I think he handled it absolutely right. All I'll say is that everybody that I know...has made some mistakes in their life. That's up to an individual to deal with as they best see fit."
Romney let his supporters eat cake at a rally in North Charleston. Photo by Tim MurphyMcDonnell might be staying on message for the time being, but you don't have too talk to many folks to realize that Newt's marital woes really are something people are indeed talking about. "It shows that he's untrustworthy," said Bill Hardy of Summerville. "It's unfortunate for him that it came out the way that it did [on national television]. But that actually drew me away from him. I can't really trust him. I mean, don't get me wrong, I think he's a very smart guy." Just not the kind you'd want in charge of the government.
The event itself was classic Mitt: The crowd was enthusiastic but not excessively so—certainly nothing like what you would see at a Gingrich event. Part of the blame might go on the band that opened for Romney, which warmed up the crowd with Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide" and Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a Changing," neither of which could rightly be considered conservative anthems. There also wasn't that much of a crowd, considering this was the last day before the biggest primary to date. Romney's campaign is the only one I've seen that actually tosses bundles of t-shirts into the crowd before he speaks—not because he's such a celebrity that people are really craving them, but for the same reason minor league baseball teams do it: to keep people awake.
Romney hardly wavered from his usual routine (stump speech laced with obscure quotes from "America the Beautiful"), with a few exceptions. In what is believed to be a campaign first, he broke into song. At the start of his speech, Romney led the crowd in an off-off-key rendition of "Happy Birthday" in honor of Gov. Nikki Haley, who'd just turned 40, and invited supporters to stick around afterward for a celebratory treat. Perhaps it wasn't the smartest of props; just two weeks after hitting President Obama for "Marie Antoinette" economic policies, the GOP front-runner was quite literally letting them eat cake.
Let's get one thing out of the way first: Here is the video of Herman Cain singing the Pokemon theme song on Friday afternoon at the College of Charleston, as part of the "Rock You Like a Herman Cain" rally with Stephen Colbert:
Speaking before a fully packed quad of students, faculty, and press, Cain was, for the most part, a harmonious prop to Colbert's larger point. Colbert used a friendly audience to launch an extended attack on what he considers to be a badly broken campaign finance system—staying in character, of course. The Comedy Central star offered a quick crash course on Citizens United, and then began to speak in sentences constructed entirely of political outfits: "We had finally arrived at the American crossroads to restore our future priorities, USA, and make us great again. Because freedom works." That would be American Crossroads (Karl Rove); Restore our Future (supporting Mitt Romney); Priorities USA (supporting Obama); Make us Great Again (supporting Rick Perry); and FreedomWorks (Dick Armey's advocacy outfit).
"I'm the Martin Luther King of corporate civil rights," he said at another point. "The Lockheed Martin Luther Burger King, if you will."
As Colbert put it, after outlining the process by which he had passed off the super-PAC he founded (Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow) to his good friend Jon Stewart, "If that is a joke, then they are saying our entire campaign finance system is a joke! And I don’t know about you, but I am being paid to be offended by that. We fought a civil war to ensure that all people are created equal. As Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg, 'Give me some money.' They don't teach that in school anymore; they replaced it with Gay Mexican History Month."
Kay Smith, an English professor at the college, had taken part of the afternoon off to watch, like many of her colleagues. "It seems to me that actually, Colbert was making a very real point about campaign finance that we need to think about," she says.
But what about Cain? Will Freeman, a senior at College of Charleston, couldn't quite make sense of the former pizza baron's appearance. "Being a former supporter of Herman Cain, I kind of found it strange that he's up there advancing serious issues in that kind of manner," he says. "It's confusing to me." Cain's speech was frequently interrupted by the audience, from random shouts of "Pokemon!" (throughout the speech), to laughter when he implored the crowd to take his advice and stay informed. (Colbert had given attendees a crash course on Cain's lack of foreign policy knowledge, noting in his monologue that they had agreed to disagree on the number of "bekis" in "Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan").
Colbert is doing his part to educate viewers on the nature of the campaign finance system through mockery. But will it matter? Consider this: The biggest hit at Friday's Herman Cain–Stephen Colbert rally—other than Cain's rendition of the Pokemon theme song, that is—may have been the black hats, handed out by Americans Elect, with "Party Crasher" emblazoned on the front. It wasn't that C of C students are particularly infatuated with the idea of an Evan Bayh—Joe Lieberman presidential unity ticket; most of them just wanted a free hat. The same might be said for the "Rock You Like a Herman-Cain Rally." They came for a free comedy routine—the Citizens United critique just came with package.
When Newt Gingrich's campaign saw this, they decided to cancel.
Newt Gingrich canceled his speech at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Charleston this morning because, an event spokesman told the crowd, of a "scheduling conflict." The conflict, as best as I could surmise, was that Gingrich had been scheduled to deliver a speech to South Carolina voters, and there weren't any; at the time his remarks were set to begin there were—generously—about two dozen attendees scattered in the bowl of the College of Charleston's basketball arena. There were nearly as many press, and it was difficult to determine which group was more bummed by the whole thing.
Gingrich may not have showed up, but there was still plenty to see at the SRLC. At the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) booth, volunteers handed out pamphlets from the California-based Ruth Institute entitled "77 Non-Religious Reasons to Support Man/Woman Marriage." As it turns out, some of these non-religious reasons are, in fact, religious. Non-religious reason number 73, for instance, warns that "religious organizations of all kinds, potentially including schools, adoption agencies, and marriage prep programs, may be subject to government regulation." Non-religious reason number 76 notes that "the government of Quebec insisted the Mennonites teach that homosexuality is normal to the handful of children in their country schools." Non-religious reason number 46 is actually non-religious, but equally absurd and isn't fixed by banning gay marriage: "Artificial reproductive technology violates the dignity of the child."
Most of the swag is a bit less heady, though. This is a representative example:
That's worth $7, although I wouldn't use it. This, on the other hand, is apparently worth a million dollars. In Guns We Trust?
Here's a painting of Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, and Gerald Ford all hanging out together. What are they laughing at?
Insert Newt Gingrich-Tiffany's joke here:
A Tim Tebow football helmet signed by Rick Perry. OK, it's signed by Tebow; bidding opens at $995:
Brother, can you spare a dime for voter suppression?
This joke would probably be a lot funnier to people who aren't supporting Newt Gingrich:
"It's Boehner Time" doesn't quite have the same ring to it: