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Jan. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Newt Gingrich’s South Carolina comeback began in mid-October when he was sitting in a rented sport-utility vehicle racing toward the Charleston airport.
He told the young aide traveling with him that he had concluded he could win the state’s primary and possibly stall Mitt Romney’s march to the Republican presidential nomination.
“I think I can win this,” the former U.S. House speaker said, turning to the 26-year-old staff member -- a Connecticut native who had spent little time in the state. “How would you feel about moving down here and running the campaign?” he said, according to Adam Waldeck, the aide who was with him that day.
Within 10 days, Waldeck, a grassroots organizer with ties to the anti-tax Tea Party, was sleeping on the floor of his sister’s college dorm in Charleston, devising plans to close what polls then showed was a deficit of as much as 18 points with Romney.
Gingrich’s decision paid off last night with a win over Romney in the South’s first primary, a result that puts another dent in the former Massachusetts governor’s claim to be the candidate best-positioned to beat President Barack Obama.
“We don’t have the kind of money that at least one of the candidates had, but we do have ideas, and we do have people,” Gingrich told supporters packed into a hotel ballroom last night in Columbia. “We proved here in South Carolina that people- power with the right ideas beats big money.”
Tough Road Ahead
Gingrich’s victory was put together on the fly by a campaign that had little in the way of conventional organization in the state, and it confirmed his reputation for rebounding from seemingly insurmountable falls. Most Republicans thought Gingrich’s political career was over in 1998 when he announced his retirement from the House and the speakership amid pressure from his own caucus.
He still faces a complicated road to capturing his party’s nomination. The next primary is Jan. 31 in Florida, the fourth- most-populous state, where it costs about $1 million a week to compete in 11 media markets.
Beyond Florida, Gingrich, 68, could face an even steeper climb; his name isn’t even on the ballot for Virginia’s March 6 primary because he failed to get the 10,000 signatures on petitions to qualify.
Still, his performance in South Carolina insures Gingrich will stay in the race. It may also boost his fundraising enough to improve his chances in Florida and beyond.
Gingrich carried the Palmetto State thanks to his hastily built campaign operation and breaks in the final week that aligned in his favor. Two televised debates on Jan. 16 and Jan. 19 showcased him rebuking the news media and Obama while also pressing Romney to release his tax returns. Texas Governor Rick Perry’s surprise exit from the contest on Jan. 19 brought Gingrich a prominent endorsement. On the same day, news broke that former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, not Romney, had won the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses.
The news wasn’t all good. On Jan. 19, his second ex-wife, Marianne Gingrich, gave a television interview reminding voters of his sexual affairs -- charges his campaign calculated could be devastating in a state where such issues as opposition to gay marriage and abortion rights motivate about 60 percent of the primary voters. In response, Gingrich made ever-bolder claims to be the only alternative to Romney, 64.
“It’s been like a tsunami,” Waldeck said in an interview, amid a crush of voters and news cameras jostling to see Gingrich as he made his final rounds at Tommy’s Country Ham House in Greenville hours before the outcome of the contest was known. Gingrich told Waldeck he had a budget of $700,000 to work with and gave him one instruction, Waldeck said: “Win.”
Through Jan. 19, Gingrich had spent $335,600 on network advertising in South Carolina, compared with $1.1 million by Romney, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, a company that tracks political advertising.
Waldeck, who previously worked for Gingrich’s now-disbanded political action committee, American Solutions for Winning the Future, began constructing the campaign apparatus last fall by calling Tea Party movement leaders he’d worked with before on such issues as curbing government spending. Many signed up to serve as county chairs.
Vince Haley, a long-time aide and Gingrich’s campaign policy director, also moved to the state, setting up shop in Summerville, close to the coast, which has a high concentration of veterans and military service members. He and Waldeck traveled the state recruiting supporters and promoting Gingrich’s proposals.
Still, Republicans in the state who didn’t back Romney were fractured, splitting their loyalties among Gingrich, Santorum, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and Perry, who were all still in the race in October. Polls showed Romney outperforming Gingrich in the state after the former Georgia congressman’s fourth-place showings in Iowa and in New Hampshire on Jan. 10.
On Jan. 11, as Gingrich began his final campaign sprint in the state, Waldeck sent an e-mail to supporters entitled “South Carolina or bust,” calling the primary there “make or break for this campaign,” and urging them to donate toward the goal of raising $1 million in the next 10 days.
The night before, after his disappointing New Hampshire finish, Gingrich had flown to South Carolina to begin what he acknowledged would be his last stand.
A turning point came after the Jan. 16 debate, where Gingrich attacked Romney for refusing to release his tax returns and lectured Fox TV’s Juan Williams for suggesting his past comments on food stamps and the lack of a work ethic in poor neighborhoods had been offensive to black people.
The next day, Waldeck said, “things just took off and went crazy -- our offices were swamped with volunteers, we’ve had materials flying off the shelves, legislators started calling to endorse us.”
At his office at Clemson University in Clemson, J. David Woodard, a Republican strategist and polling expert, was seeing something similar develop in his surveys. His data were showing Gingrich with a 6-point lead over Romney, a dramatic turnabout from what Woodard had found earlier in the week.
“We caught the surge,” Woodard said.
Preliminary exit polls indicated that Gingrich closed the deal with South Carolina voters in the final days of the race, in part through his debate performances. About 50 percent said they’d decided who would get their vote over the last few days, about the same proportion that said the debates played a major role in whom they chose, according to the Associated Press.
A highlight of his debate appearances came on Jan. 19 when Gingrich was asked about his ex-wife’s allegation that he had sought an “open marriage” with her so he could continue his affair with his now-wife, Callista.
Gingrich turned the issue to his advantage by criticizing CNN moderator John King for raising the issue as the first debate question. The audience responded with a standing ovation.
“That helped him,” Woodard said. “My hunch was that’s not good stuff, all that Marianne stuff and everything that goes with it -- not in South Carolina. But it takes two or three days for scandals and personal stuff to sink in to the electorate. All people saw was that Newt will hit back, and that’s what they want.”
--Editors: Jeanne Cummings, Mark McQuillan.
To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at email@example.com