Charleston, S.C. — Newt Gingrich wowed hundreds of conservative voters in this sleepy coastal town on Monday, all of whom braved the rain to attend a town-hall meeting with the latest Republican frontrunner. “We will be back, we will rebuild the country we love,” Gingrich said near the end of his hour-long presentation. “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
Gingrich’s visit to Sottile Theatre at the College of Charleston kicked off the former House speaker’s three-day campaign swing through the Palmetto State, a key GOP battleground. It was also his first public appearance since the Manchester Union-Leader, a leading Granite State newspaper, endorsed him on Sunday.
Speaking before South Carolinians, Gingrich did not cite the editorial, but he took care to highlight his electability, asserting himself as a conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor. He challenged the audience to think critically about the future. “We have to come back to grips with the decision about who we are,” he said.
Polls show Gingrich poised for a strong finish in South Carolina, the third January contest of the 2012 cycle, following the New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucuses. In a recent survey of state Republicans conducted by the Polling Company, Gingrich leads Romney 31 percent to 16 percent and enjoys an “intensity” rating higher than any GOP contender. An Insider Advantage poll has him leading Romney 38 percent to 15 percent, and American Research Group puts Gingrich ahead 33 percent to 22 percent.
Hoping to seize on the momentum, senior campaign advisers tell National Review Online that the state figures prominently in Gingrich’s strategy. If Gingrich can win here, building a broad coalition of support, his team sees a path to the nomination, even though Romney has more money and an experienced, national operation. “If we do well in Iowa, do well in New Hampshire, and win South Carolina and win Florida, that’s the first opportunity for a knock-out punch of Mitt Romney,” says R. C. Hammond, Gingrich’s spokesman. “Down goes Willard,” he chuckles.
At the Charleston event, moderated by Rep. Tim Scott, the local congressman, Gingrich, a former Georgia lawmaker and college professor, noted his Southern roots, but he did not overplay his regional ties. Instead, his main appeal to state Republicans came on policy.
Gingrich focused on local issues. His pledge to “defund the National Labor Relations Board,” which has prevented Boeing from opening a state plant, drew cheers. So did his push to “modernize the Port of Charleston.” On immigration, where the state has been sued by the Justice Department for its strict enforcement, he pledged to “side with South Carolina.”
As attendees departed, it was clear that Gingrich’s approach — part-academic, part-firebrand — went over well with the crowd. “I liked everything that he said, and after today, he’s definitely in my top two,” said Kyle Taylor, a 21-year-old cadet at the Citadel. “I feel like Newt is saying all the right things, and I’m optimistic that he could be the candidate to stand up and beat Obama.”
Of course, Gingrich was not a favorite on every issue, most notably on immigration, where he said, to a few grumbles, that select illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in the United States. Gingrich’s position, which last week stirred a media firestorm, was heard respectfully in Charleston, but generated little enthusiasm. Gingrich, however, did attempt to win over skeptics.
“Take someone who’s been here for 25 years. They’ve been obeying the law for 25 years, they’ve been paying taxes for 25 years, they’re married, they have three kids, two grandkids, and they belong to a church. Do you really think the American people are going to send a policeman to take that person away from their family? I don’t,” Gingrich said.
Gingrich then reminded the packed house that his immigration position is more complex than one debate remark about a small group of illegal immigrants. He spent ample time reviewing his opposition to “sanctuary cities,” his support for a border fence, and his hope to make English the country’s official language. “Several of my friends have said I’m for amnesty. That’s not true,” Gingrich said, blasting the suggestion as an “Obama-level quality statement.”
Gingrich made similar arguments throughout the evening, making his case as a proven, deep-thinking national leader, one who may not agree with you on every issue, but who is, at the very least, informed and willing to listen. “No person except Christ has ever been perfect,” Gingrich told WSC-FM earlier on Monday. “So I don’t claim to be the perfect candidate. I just claim to be a lot more conservative than Mitt Romney and a lot more electable than anybody else.”
Gingrich will be on Hilton Head Island later Tuesday, opening his fifth campaign office in South Carolina. He will then hold a town-hall meeting in nearby Bluffton before heading to Newberry, near Columbia, the state capital, for a GOP barbeque and another town hall. Gingrich’s political team says the forums are a natural fit, enabling the candidate to communicate beyond sound-bites and engage voters.
By holding four town-hall meetings between Monday and Wednesday, Gingrich will show South Carolina that he’s taking their primary seriously, says Adam Waldeck, the campaign’s state organizer. “People can hear Newt unedited,” he says. “We’re trying to do as many as possible.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.