New Newtmentum: Gingrich Picks Up Speed, Scrutiny and Supporters in South Carolina

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Travis Dove / The New York Times

Newt Gingrich with his wife, Callista, during a campaign stop at Christ Central Community Center in Winnsboro, S.C., January 18, 2012.

Walterboro, South Carolina

Newt Gingrich likes to boast that he does things differently than conventional politicians. Sometimes this is true. Hours after receiving Rick Perry’s endorsement, and amid new polls that show the South Carolina primary to be a dead heat, Gingrich decamped into the heart of the low country for a barbecue cookout with a group of sportsmen. Getting there required an hour-plus drive from Charleston down one-lane roads, into farmland owned by a timber company, whereupon guests were whisked via ATV down a rutted track to an empty field ringed by trees and vendors selling buttons and Tea Party shirts. When Gingrich’s campaign bus arrived, perhaps 200 put down their plates to snap photos and form a receiving line.

Gone was the dour, sullen Speaker who sulked around New Hampshire and complained bitterly about the attack ads that kneecapped him in Iowa. Gingrich was back to his buoyant, boastful self. “If we can win here, I will become the nominee,” he told the crowd.

Once again, Gingrich is getting ahead of himself. Though polls show the race tightening quickly, baggage from his past may weigh down Gingrich’s sprint to Saturday’s primary. On Thursday night, after the field of four squares off in a debate in Charleston, ABC News will run an interview with Gingrich’s ex-wife, Marianne. In excerpts released Thursday, Marianne Gingrich claims Newt, already entangled with the woman who would become his third wife, asked for an “open” marital arrangement so he could keep his mistress. “He wanted an open marriage and I refused,” Marianne Gingrich told ABC. In a brief exchange with reporters in South Carolina, the candidate called the interview “tawdry and inappropriate.”

(PHOTOS: Newt Gingrich’s Life in Pictures)

In tiny Walterboro, Callista Gingrich stood on stage next to her husband, clad in a black suit, her eyes fixed on him as he worked the crowd into a lather. “I do believe that a solid Georgia conservative is a lot more likely to debate and defeat Barack Obama than a Massachusetts moderate,” said Gingrich, who lives in a tony Washington suburb.

Gingrich said he was “really honored” by Perry’s endorsement. During their brief call this morning, he asked Perry to spearhead a task force to study the 10th Amendment in order to devise legislation for a Gingrich Administration. I’m delighted that governor Perry is going to stay active and be involved in this,” he said.

Gingrich didn’t take questions from the media in Walterboro, but outwardly he showed few signs of strain. “We spent almost a year talking about [running]. We knew there would be days that would be miserable,” he said. What made up his mind? “If we don’t get a leader who actually knows what he’s doing, we’re in deep trouble.”

Plenty of voters here believe Gingrich is that leader. His promises to pummel Obama in debates sends conservatives into paroxysms of joy. By way of explaining “why South Carolina loves Newt,” an opening speaker quoted Gingrich: “I don’t want to bloody his nose. I want to knock him out.”

Some voters say pitting Gingrich against Obama would galvanize Republicans impressed but unexcited by Mitt Romney. “I want to be electrified!” says Rachel Davis, a retired teacher from Mt. Pleasant who is choosing between Gingrich and Romney. “That’s what Obama does to crowds, and we need someone who can do that too.” A social conservative, Davis says she is undeterred by fresh details about Gingrich’s infidelity. “Honey, I know too many people who have gone through similar situations to be put off by that.”

And as the race enters its final 48 hours, Gingrich hopes absorbing Perry’s small support base could put him over the top. Whether the governor’s fans will fall in line is another matter. “That’s probably what I will do,” says Marty Rhymes, a woman from Texas with Perry and Gingrich stickers plastered on her blouse. But she didn’t sound happy about it.