Newt Gingrich strikes back, family by his side, in South Carolina

Newt Gingrich fired back against explosive allegations from his ex-wife by wrapping himself in family at an event South Carolina, a state where family values loom large. 

Jason Reed/REUTERS
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and his wife, Callista, speak to the crowd campaign event in Walterboro, S.C., Thursday.

It’s lunchtime in Walterboro, S.C., and supporters are dining on hot barbecue. Newt and Callista Gingrich take the stage set up in an over-size garage, a “Lowcountry Sportsmen for Newt” banner stretched wide across the wall behind them.

Mr. Gingrich launches into introductions. First up, one of his “senior debate coaches” – grandson Robert Cushman, age 10. His other “debate coach,” 12-year-old granddaughter Maggie, couldn’t be there. She had ballet.

Robert’s advice is “to keep it shorter and clearer,” Gingrich says, his beaming grandson at his side. “[Maggie’s] role is to make sure I smile often enough, because I’m too intense, apparently. So she counts my smiles at every debate.”

Also on stage were Gingrich’s daughter Jackie, his brother Randy, and sister Susan. This show of family support in the runup to South Carolina’s primary Saturday was no accident. ABC News was about to air its interview with Gingrich’s second ex-wife, who said he asked her for an “open marriage” back in 1999. Gingrich was by then already long into an affair with Callista.

Thursday’s series of events – the campaign appearance with family, followed by his aggressive attack on the media in the evening debate – demonstrated the maxim, “the best defense is a good offense.”

Add to the mix a dose of good fortune. Texas Gov. Rick Perry dropped out of the presidential race Thursday and threw his support to Gingrich. Governor Perry acknowledged Gingrich’s personal history in his remarks.

“Newt is not perfect, but who among us is?” Perry said. “The fact is, there is forgiveness for those who seek God, and I believe in the power of redemption, for it is a central tenet of my own Christian faith.”

Gingrich may have made the best of a tough situation Thursday, perhaps well enough to take full advantage of Mitt Romney’s stumbles over his personal finances and beat him in the primary. After several days of hedging about when he will release his tax returns, Mr. Romney has gone from the clear front-runner in South Carolina polls to a close second behind Gingrich.

Still, South Carolina is heavily evangelical – about 60 percent of GOP primary voters here self-identify as born-again Christian – and for many in that community, Gingrich’s history of marital infidelity is hardly a selling point. Last weekend, a group of about 150 high-profile religious conservative leaders gathered in Houston endorsed Rick Santorum.

But there are signs Gingrich could do well among evangelicals in South Carolina. In a Politico poll released Thursday, Gingrich got 33 percent of the evangelical vote compared with 9 percent for Santorum and 27 percent for Romney. That poll was taken before Thursday’s debate – and the airing of Marianne Gingrich’s allegations – and so it remains unclear how those events might affect opinion.

Another variable is tea party voters. Until recently, the state’s 124 tea party groups have not played a major role in the primary, as activists have divided their support among different candidates. A month ago, the tea party group in Myrtle Beach, S.C., voted to back Gingrich. Earlier this week the group hosted a two-day statewide convention of more than 600 tea-party activists, but that gathering did not issue an endorsement.

Joe Dugan, chairman of the board of the Myrtle Beach Tea Party, sees plenty of activism in the presidential campaign among tea partyers. His own group presented a plaque to Gingrich after Thursday night’s debate in Charleston.

“Those groups that don’t endorse, they respect an individual’s right to favor one candidate over another,” says Mr. Dugan. “But I think I can make the general statement that South Carolina a very conservative state, and that was proven out by the 2010 elections.”

Some Republican strategists tend to see Gingrich’s assertiveness in attacking the establishment-backed Romney as more central to his rise than any organized tea party effort.

“There’s enthusiasm or anger or whatever you want to call it, but I haven’t seen any real evidence of any serious organizational capability by tea party groups, because there are so many different groups,” says Chip Felkel, a GOP consultant based in Greenville, S.C., who is neutral in the presidential race.

In addition, some tea partyers see more potential for impact in statewide and local races over the presidential contest, says Max Pappas, a vice president for public policy and government affairs at Freedomworks in Washington. He spoke at the Myrtle Beach convention.

What’s clear is that tea party activists don’t like Romney, and as Gingrich rises in the polls, becoming the top conservative alternative to Romney in the South Carolina primary, there appears to be a snowball effect.

"I spend a lot of time on the Internet, and I’ve noticed a lot more people leaning toward Newt just in the last week,” says Ted Thurnau of Ridgeland, S.C., speaking at a Gingrich event in Beaufort, S.C., on Thursday. “Romney’s just not conservative enough. Going half way won’t do us any good.”

Among voters interviewed at both the Walterboro and Beaufort events, none was swayed from their support of Gingrich by his marital history.

“I know a lot of naughty people who call themselves Christian,” says Tamar Eversole, a Gingrich supporter from Walterboro who has known the former speaker for years. “To me, the most important thing is electing someone who can get government out of my backyard.”

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