Gingrich Gains in South Carolina
Crowds flock to his rhetorical spectacles.

Newt Gingrich, alongside his wife Callista, in Easley, S.C., Jan. 18, 2012


Katrina Trinko

Greenville, S.C. — In South Carolina, getting to see, not just hear, Newt Gingrich is a challenge.

Arriving late to his town hall at Bobby’s BBQ and unable to get past the porch, I can only hear his voice piped out. Dozens of people lean against railings; another handful contentedly sit on rocking chairs out on the porch, listening to Gingrich’s voice fall and rise as they rock back and forth. The room he’s in — a large, open one — is packed. It is the same story, just hours later, at a town hall held at Mutt’s BBQ: The room where Gingrich speaks is packed, and the overflow crowd — again, hearing Gingrich’s voice through speakers — is scattered throughout the rest of the restaurant.

At Bobby’s, talking about the “energy” in the room, Gingrich emphasizes the importance of a win on Saturday. “If we carry Saturday,” he says. “I think I will become the nominee this fall.”

Then he delivers his pitch.

“As the nominee, I will challenge President Obama to seven three-hour debates in the Lincoln–Douglas tradition,” he says, to loud applause. “With a timekeeper and no moderator,” Gingrich adds, as the applause ebbs. “Yes! shouts a man in the audience.

For months now, Gingrich, who tends to shine in debates, has been talking about his proposal to debate President Obama seven times. (His back-up plan, if Obama refuses to debate so many times, is to follow Obama wherever he goes and deliver a rebuttal to any remarks the president makes four hours later.) It’s almost impossible to overstate how much of a selling point that proposal — and Gingrich’s feisty rhetoric when talking about Obama — is to South Carolina voters.

“I’d pay a lot to see him debate Obama,” says Ted Wasserlein, a retiree from North Augusta, S.C. Susan Swanson, who runs a pregnancy-care center, thinks that Gingrich’s history background will be a crucial asset in the debates. “When you understand the history of where our country’s been and where we’re going, it’s just a lot easier to debate Obama,” she remarks. “Whoever goes up against Obama has got to be a tough act to take down, because Obama will pull out every stop.” William Brown, a retiree from Aisley, S.C., is confident in pitting Gingrich against Obama. “I think he’ll pick Obama like chicken,” he says.

At the PersonhoodUSA candidate forum held Wednesday night, Gingrich again showed off his rhetorical chops, getting a more enthusiastic response than any other candidate besides Ron Paul, who had a huge number of dedicated supporters there to cheer him on.

Describing how he had become strongly pro-life, Gingrich talked about how he had been approached in a restaurant by a woman who objected to his position on abortion, arguing that it was her body and that any pregnancy was a “malignant tumor.” For Gingrich, it was a moment when his pro-life views solidified.

“We’re going to have an argument about whether or not [a fetus] is life,” he added. “If it is life, we’re then going to have an argument about how you live that out, and how you legislate it out.” And then Gingrich goes for the clincher: “But I have zero doubt that when a woman becomes pregnant, it is not a malignant tumor. It is a baby.” The audience erupts into applause, cheering and hollering.

“Newt Gingrich, I think, can take Obama on, toe-to-toe, and he proved that again tonight,” said Donna Wheeler, a registered nurse from Simpsonville, S.C., who attended the PersonhoodUSA event. She wasn’t as impressed by Rick Santorum, who also spoke. “I love Santorum’s convictions in terms of the family,” she says, “but I think we need somebody who can go toe-to-toe with Obama. They have to be able to not be afraid or stand down.”

Gingrich, perhaps more so than any candidate left in the field, relishes the possibilities of rhetoric. Talking about how he changes the way he presents certain topics on the stump, Gingrich observes, “If you watch the 15 debates, I never know in advance which ones will work. . . . You’ll see me do three or four or five things that are okay, but not particularly interesting, and suddenly we’ll hit the right moment, we’ll [have] the right phrase.”