Though I don’t think I ever predicted a Mitt Romney win in South Carolina – I’ve been trying to avoid the punditry game best I can – Newt Gingrich’s huge upset there requires me to make a concession anyway. For several weeks now, I’ve been making the counterintuitive argument that Romney was not necessarily the favorite of the “moderates,” because so many Romney supporters I met in Iowa and New Hampshire were in fact brimming with loathing for Barack Obama, and saw voting for Romney as the surest way to make Obama a one-term president. I met more such Romney supporters this week in South Carolina – one, Greenville resident Dan Watson, described Obama, simply, as “the worst kind of socialist.”
But the story of Gingrich’s remarkable victory is that there were even more South Carolina Republicans who don’t so much want to replace Obama as they want to knock him out, as Gingrich charmingly pledged to do this past week. They have convinced themselves that Obama is such a threat to the republic that only someone of Newt’s gumption and fortitude can take him down. There is an irony in this for Romney – he trains all his rhetoric on Obama, warning voters how the president wants to transform the country into a European nanny state, yet in South Carolina such talk only convinced voters that someone bigger was needed for the job. Newt "has got guts,” said Carmen Louw, a sales and customer service employee in her fifties who calls Obama an “abomination” and who came to see Gingrich Saturday at a middle school on the outskirts of Greenville, where she also voted for him. “Newt can get things done. He has the tenacity. He’s going to stand and speak his mind and not get backed into a corner. Romney is too wishy-washy -- he talks like a politician. He always agrees with the last person who spoke. So I think, 'what are you saying? Where are you really?' I don't know where he is." Gary Fain, a 64-year-old mechanical engineer, put his theory of Newt's necessity way: "Things are such a mess with the debt and the economy that it'll take a really strong guy to stand up to all of them in Washington. Sure, I worry about him being so polarizing, but it'll be such a battle no matter what that we've got to get someone strong."
The best articulation of this dynamic actually came not from a Gingrich supporter but from a Republican couple supporting his rivals that I met at Tommy’s Country Ham, the Greenville restaurant where Romney and Gingrich narrowly averted a Dodge City showdown Saturday morning after having both scheduled photo ops for the same time. Romney, of course, was the one to blink, showing up earlier than scheduled; when I got there Newt had the place all to himself, while hundreds of his supporters engaged in a mostly friendly shouting match outside the place with the Romney troops still present. Among those milling outside were Ron and Carole Walters. She planned to vote for Santorum and he for Romney. But they understand well why so many of their fellow Republicans were moving to Newt.
“It’s his fieriness,” Carole said. “He gives people a voice. People have been so frustrated the past few years, not being able to do anything. We’ve all been told to shut up.”
“People have been yelling at their TVs all these years,” Ron said. “And now Newt—“
“Romney hasn’t been able to do that,” she said. “He hasn’t been able to break through the chute to do that.”
In other words, after several years of shouting at the TV, South Carolina Republicans had now decided to shoot it.
The metaphor was particularly apt because, without question, TV is where Newt won this thing. Virtually every voter I spoke to the last couple days cited the two debates this week as a major factor in their thinking. Newt was hailed to the skies for taking on Juan Williams and John King over his "food stamp president" rhetoric and his alleged open marriage request. “He was talking about work. About putting people to work, about teaching them to work. He was telling it like it is,” said Gingrich supporter Steve Cole, who works at a nonprofit for special needs kids.
Romney, meanwhile, was pilloried for his equivocation on the matter of his tax returns. Voter after voter told me they didn’t really care what was in the returns but that they were dismayed by his squirrely handling of the question. Even a staunch Romney supporter, retiree Betty Marlow, was harsh in her judgment: “He’s being ridiculously wishy-washy about his taxes. He’s been portraying himself as a dynamic leader, but he’s waffling like crazy on his taxes. He’s just got to get it out there. How bad can it be? He’s got to decide how he’s going to answer these things or Obama will kill him.”
The debates mattered in another sense: they got voters over the electability hump. Exit polls say that a majority of voters prioritized electability, and, amazingly, half of those who did so chose the baggage-laden Gingrich, while only 40 percent chose Romney. How could that be? Well, because of the debates. If debates now matter as much as they seem to, then who better to take on President Teleprompter than Professor Gingrich? “He will wipe the floor with Obama in the debates, and I look forward to that,” said Fain, the mechanical engineer. "Newt's just coming up stronger in the debates. He's not stumbling over his answers at all. What you see is what you get. Romney's a little harder to connect with. You almost wonder why he's running. With Newt, you don't." Oh, and as for that baggage? It won’t matter, because America is the land of redemption. “I think people basically will forgive him for that because of his age. It was decades ago,” said Fain, in a very loose definition of “decades.” “People mellow out with age.”
I heard much the same from Essie Phillips, a 72-year-old retired from working in an auto parts plant whom I met at the middle school Newt visited, where he was swarmed by supporters, led by two local teenaged beauty queens in their silver tiaras. "He's asked the Lord to forgive him and if the Lord can forgive him, so can I," said Phillips. She said she had seen a lot of Newt appearing on Fox News the past few years and he "seems to stand steady on what he believes. He doesn't hesitate. He's the only who can beat Obama in a debate; he doesn't have to think about what he says."
Still, I couldn't help but press her, a well-dressed, proper older woman: was she saying that she really wasn’t bothered by Newt’s personal history, or worried what voters would make of it? I mean, really: Three marriages? She stared at me. I’m a widow now, she said, "but it took me three times to get it right, too."
Which makes me think that Florida, where Romney and the "elites in New York and Washington" hope to put an end to this lark once and for all, might be better suited to Newt than people assume. Might all the first and second wives of the Sunshine State see Newt not as their traitorous exes, but….as themselves?
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