In South Carolina, Newt Gingrich Looks to Win His Own Way

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Paul J. Richards / AFP / Getty Images

Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich delivers remarks to seniors at Sun City Hilton Head in Bluffton, South Carolina, Jan. 19, 2012.

Orangeburg, South Carolina

Jim Ulmer has a problem. Hundreds of people are crammed into a strip mall in Orangeburg to hear Newt Gingrich speak, and the man of the moment is nowhere to be found. Which leaves a handful of local Republican officials–including Ulmer, the Orangeburg County GOP chairman–to warm up the fidgety crowd. “Is he here yet?” Ulmer jokes. “I’ve run out of spit.” And so Ulmer gamely musters a few Strom Thurmond stories to tide over the anxious crowd. Hugh Weathers, the state’s agriculture commissioner – and, until this week, a Rick Perry supporter – leads the crowd through the National Anthem. By now a Newt chant has started and sputtered, and the crowd is tiring of the warm-up acts. “Is he here yet?” Ulmer asks again, a little weakly this time.

Gingrich arrived 50 minutes late to a reception befitting a front runner. In a hairpin turn, that’s what he’s become in South Carolina, just a week after the pundits he loves to pummel were dancing on the grave of his campaign. On the eve of the pivotal Palmetto State primary, three new polls showed Gingrich leapfrogging Mitt Romney on the strength of forceful debate performances, including six-point leads in two. His surge sets up a Saturday showdown that could either all but wrap up the Republican nomination for Romney or usher the bruising battle into a new, uncertain phase. As of Friday night, the two candidates’ schedules had both of them appearing at the same time Saturday morning in a Greenville restaurant.

For Gingrich, this is where the fun starts. At a massive town hall here Friday afternoon, Gingrich told the overflow crowd that a win in South Carolina would propel him to the GOP nomination. “I do believe if I win tomorrow, I will go on to become your nominee,” he said. Even Chuck Norris hopped aboard the Gingrich wagon and endorsed the former House speaker.

With the same flair he used to flay debate moderators this week, Gingrich gleefully blistered President Obama and Romney, sometimes in the same breath. He assailed Obama’s Administration for its weakness and urged Republicans to nominate a conservative capable of drawing a sharp contrast with the President. “We’re going to take the first big step toward ensuring that a conservative is nominated for President of the United States,” he said. “I hope to win South Carolina, you know, God willing we’ll win. And tomorrow night will be very interesting and then Florida will be even more interesting.”

Interesting probably isn’t the word Romney would use privately. On Friday, he and his aides sought to downplay expectations after a week that began with a sizable lead. “Frankly, to be in a neck-and-neck race at this last moment is kind of exciting,” Romney told reporters during a campaign stop in Gilbert, S.C. For the third day in a row, he enlisted surrogates to skewer Gingrich as an unreliable leader. In a call with reporters, Congressman Jeff Flake called Gingrich “the granddaddy of earmarks.” Mimicking the pressure Gingrich applied on Romney’s unreleased tax returns, the former Massachusetts governor urged Gingrich to make public files from the congressional ethics investigation that ended with Gingrich agreeing to pay a $300,000 fine in 1997.

Gingrich smiled when asked about Romney’s comments. “Don’t you love these guys? He doesn’t release anything,” Gingrich said, alluding to the controversy over Romney’s tax returns.  “He doesn’t answer anything. He’s even confused about whether he’ll ever release anything, and then he goes to pick a fight?”

Unlike Romney, Gingrich relishes this sort of political pugilism. What he doesn’t enjoy quite as much is tending to the quotidian duties that make successful campaigns hum. On the last day before the first-in-the-South primary, he waved away a question about his ability to compete with Romney over a protracted campaign. “Well, we seem to be,” he said. The reporter pointed out Romney’s sizable fundraising advantage. “Not financially. You didn’t say financially. You said, ‘Can I compete?’”

Propelled by forceful debate performances, Gingrich has demonstrated an ability to convince Republican voters that his checkered past isn’t as important as his ability to shepherd the country into an uncertain future. “We have big problems, and big problems take big thinkers,” Weathers, the state’s agricultural commissioner, told voters in Orangeburg.

Being a big thinker may not be enough. For years, competing for the nomination has required mastering the rules of a game that involves attention to fundraising, assembling an organization, logistical rigor and message discipline. Gingrich drips with disdain for everything but the ideas, and suggests the blueprint is out of date. “The Washington consultant model is that you have to measure a campaign by its finances, because that’s how consultants get paid,” Gingrich said, suggesting it was no longer necessary in the age of the Internet. “Look at Rick Santorum’s campaign in Iowa.”

But Santorum relied on a traditional retail model, whereas Gingrich’s choices can be bewildering. After canceling his first event, a sparsely attended GOP conference in Charleston, he held his first event Friday at a children’s hospital, of all places, where bemused staffers watched warily as a jumbled mass of media crowded the lobby awaiting his arrival. After a tour, the Gingrichs headed to the seventh floor for a photo op in a children’s playroom, the sort of place where bright colors carpets fought valiantly to cheer up a space that could never be cheerful. Surrounded by at least 50 reporters and cameramen, Callista—accompanied by her protagonist, Ellis the Elephant–read her children’s book to four kids, two of whom seemed fixated on the rubber dinosaurs and plastic castles just out of their reach.

No one but Gingrich would kick off a critical day of campaigning at a stop where the only eligible voters were the staffers paid to be there. But he enjoyed it. “We talked about autism, Alzheimer’s, traumatic brain injury, cardiology – things that really interest me,” he told me. Gingrich is also interested in cultivating his reputation for doing things differently. Asked during Thursday night’s debate what he would change about his campaign in hindsight, he said: “I would skip the opening three months where I hired regular consultants and tried to be a normal candidate. And just go straight to being a big ideas big solutions internet-based campaign from day one. It just didn’t work, it’s not who I am, I’m not capable of being a traditional candidate.”

But conceding Romney the perks of a traditional candidacy—including his huge fundraising edge—may be a mistake born of hubris. Even if Gingrich wins on Saturday, Romney takes his pile of cash money and organization clout into Florida, where he’s expected to prevail before the race pivots to a series of caucus states where Gingrich will face a massive organizational deficit–he won’t be on the ballot in Virginia, and the debate calendar will thin as the race drags on.

For now, though, Gingrich has convinced South Carolina conservatives like Jim Ulmer that he is the right man for a rocky moment. “Folks know the future of the Republic is at stake,” Ulmer says. “A lot of us think he’s up to it.”