Seated at the crux of a handful of tables pushed together at the Elmwood Avenue Lizard’s Thicket, Newt Gingrich listens as a group of 10 men complain about health care and Social Security.
Gingrich, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and now a candidate for Republican nomination for president, listens politely as he sips his coffee before finally rubbing his hands together and interrupting the discussion:
“Let me ask you all on a practical level for a minute: What are your thoughts on how we win the (S.C.) primary?”
How to win always has been the question for Gingrich. In the 1990s, he devised the Contract for America and used it to produce the first Republican majority in the House of Representatives in 40 years.
His tenure in the House also included overseeing two balanced budgets — a stellar resume given the Republican electorate’s concern about federal spending.
But Gingrich also has been married three times — a tough sell to the evangelical voters who make up a majority of the S.C. GOP — and has admitted to an affair with a House staffer at the same time he was investigating former President Bill Clinton’s affair. (Gingrich and the former staffer now are married.)
He also sat on a loveseat in front of the U.S. Capitol with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, advocating for compromise to protect the environment in a 2008 commercial.
Gingrich also has been abandoned by his presidential campaign staff in South Carolina — including former S.C. GOP chairman Katon Dawson and political consultant Walter Whetsell — who quit and joined Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign.
“He was reasonably popular back (in the ’90s). He was the ying to Clinton’s yang,” Neal Thigpen, a political science professor at Florence’s Francis Marion University, said of Gingrich. “He’s just run into trouble on every front . ... I don’t see him doing all that well here.”
Last month, only 5.6 percent of likely S.C. Republican primary voters said they would vote for Gingrich, according to a poll by Winthrop University. Even fewer — 1.6 percent — said they thought Gingrich would win the nomination.
But Wednesday, Gingrich said he can win the S.C. primary. He said he plans to hire staff and open an S.C. office later this month. And he said he has local connections to most S.C. voters.
His father spent 27 years in the military, which Gingrich says can win over “all the retired military and retired veterans along the coast.”
A daughter attended Presbyterian College in Laurens County.
And, lastly, “My son-in-law’s father was Strom Thurmond’s first chief of staff in Washington,” giving Gingrich a connection to the Palmetto State’s political icon.
“We have ties,” he said. “I think the core issues we’re campaigning on really are responsive to the people of South Carolina.”
But Gingrich does not have money.
His most recent campaign reports show he is more than $1 million in debt. The next round of fundraising reports are not due until Oct. 15, and Gingrich declined to say how much money he had raised. Asked if he still was in debt, he said, “A little bit.”
So far, Gingrich’s campaign has been “living off the land,” as Thigpen put it. Gingrich said he was on the road 24 days in September, and he has taken part in every GOP debate, including a nationally televised forum in Columbia last month sponsored by U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint. There, Gingrich captured much of the applause.
“When you go through the debates, at the end of the day, it’s always, ‘He’s the adult on stage,’ ” said Warren Tompkins, a veteran S.C. Republican political consultant who is not affiliated with any presidential campaign. “Enough of those kind of performances and people will start to pay attention.”
But several other GOP candidates are sitting on millions of dollars.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney raised $18 million during his first fundraising quarter. Texas Gov. Rick Perry raised $17 million during his first fundraising quarter, according to reports released Wednesday. And Ron Paul raised $8 million in the most recent quarter.
“The key is: Can (Gingrich) raise enough money to survive?” Tompkins said. “When the air wars start, will he get himself in position to not be completely drowned out?”
At the Lizard’s Thicket on Elmwood Avenue, Gingrich spoke to a small group of supporters from Aiken, Lexington and North Carolina.
“As far as you as a candidate, by far, undebatable, you are the best candidate,” Whit Keane, a small-business owner from North Carolina, told Gingrich while munching on a ham biscuit. “But you’ve got to get this out to a larger base of people and, basically, change a little bit to reach people to at least get their attention.”
Gingrich told Keane he is planning to “launch a student movement,” including a YouTube video quoting President Obama saying he was not sure the government could make Social Security payments. Gingrich, who advocates privatizing Social Security, said the video would ask students, “Do you really want to spend 50 years of your life worried about politicians cheating you? Or would you like to control your own personal social security?”
Allen Olson, founder and former president of the Columbia Tea Party, asked Gingrich about his 2008 commercial with Pelosi, saying a lot of people were asking him about it.
“It was a mistake because ... the noise surrounding her was so big that I couldn’t communicate effectively what I was trying to say,” Gingrich said. “We have to be in a position to debate the left on the environment. ... I am trying to re-establish our legitimacy in caring about the environment.”
And Gingrich said he can unify what he called the newly diverse Republican Party. He called GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain an “enormous asset” because he is African-American.
“You can’t attack our team as being racist if Herman Cain is on the campaign,” Gingrich said. “You get the same effect, frankly, from (U.S. Sen.) Marco Rubio and (Gov.) Nikki Haley and (New Mexico Gov.) Susana Martinez and from (Louisiana Gov.) Bobby Jindal” — all Republican politicians who are racial minorities.
Like another long-shot candidate, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Gingrich compared his campaign to Haley’s gubernatorial campaign, polling fourth late in the race before rallying to win the Republican nomination.
Gingrich spent the night Tuesday at the Governor’s Mansion, just like fellow candidate U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. Gingrich said his conversation with Haley was “off the record between old friends.”
“We had a great talk about policy and politics,” Gingrich said. “She was very knowledgeable and, in some ways, we’re similar because we’re both reformers and both prepared to take on the establishment — and we’re cheerful about it.”
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