In the week before the South Carolina primary, Newt Gingrich was averaging 22 percent in the polls, per Real Clear Politics, and trailing Mitt Romney by six points. But when the vote was tallied on Saturday, Gingrich had won 40 percent of the vote to Romney’s 28 percent. What had happened to give Gingrich such a gigantic boost?
Talking to voters at Gingrich campaign events in the Palmetto State in the days before and the day of the primary, I heard plenty of enthusiasm about the two debates that preceded the vote — and for the feisty, take-no-prisoners persona that Gingrich projected on screen. But I also heard concerns about Romney and Rick Santorum, and a belief that Gingrich was not just a debater, but an experienced politician who had already proved that he could smash through Washington’s gridlock and achieve significant legislative victories.
Take the case of Barbara Young, whom I met Saturday morning at Tommy’s Country Ham House in Greenville, S.C. This was the restaurant at which both Gingrich and Romney had scheduled simultaneous visits, and its parking lot was jammed with excited supporters of both candidates waving signs. (In the end, the two candidates did not visit at the same time.) Young, a housewife from Travelers Rest, S.C., was holding a Newt sign, but said she had been seriously considering Romney earlier in the cycle. Part of what appealed to her about Gingrich was his honesty about his past failings. “I’m just afraid that Mr. Romney — there’s going to be something brought up in the bigger campaign,” she said, adding she didn’t know exactly what could come out. Romney, she added, was “just a little too slick.”
Another factor that likely hurt Romney this week was “Winning Our Future,” the super PAC backing Gingrich that hit the airwaves in South Carolina. In Iowa, Gingrich was fending off negative attacks ads from both Ron Paul and the Romney super PAC, “Restore Our Future.” Now, it was payback time. Listening to conservative talk radio in South Carolina, I heard over and over again an ad that featured a clip of Romney saying that, if an underage girl couldn’t get permission from her parents for an abortion, she could ask a judge for permission. At Mutt’s BBQ on Thursday, Greenville resident Claire Stancik told me she had seen the ad and was troubled by it. “I didn’t like that abortion business, that judge being able to override a parent’s decision on abortion for their child,” she said. “I heard his voice say it.”
But what about Santorum? The news that he had won Iowa seemed to have come too late to influence South Carolinians. Michael Lemocks, who was at Gingrich’s Chick-fil-A rally on Saturday with his wife and young son, had been wavering between Santorum and Gingrich in the weeks before the election. Ultimately, he opted for Gingrich. “I see a passion in Newt Gingrich that I don’t see in Santorum,” he said, saying that Gingrich had something akin to a “fire deep within the gut” when it came to halting President Obama’s promised “fundamental transformation of America” and changing the country’s course.