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The New Newt

He’s tanned, rested, and ready—and having a good time on the campaign trail.

Dec 12, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 13 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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Bluffton, S.C.
It’s a cold, overcast afternoon near Hilton Head in South Carolina’s low country. Newt Gingrich is making his way from a barbecue joint to his brand new campaign office, his sixth in the state. The walk is only about 300 feet down the street, but the former House speaker takes his time. Among television camera crews and local Republican hangers-on, Gingrich turns the corner deliberately as the spectators lining the sidewalk cheer and point and ooh and ah.

Photo of Gingrich sharing a laugh with supporters

Gingrich shares a laugh with supporters.

Newscom

As he strolls along, Gingrich speaks briefly with a few voters. An elderly man proffers his plan for securing the southern border. Gingrich responds politely with a hearty laugh and shakes the man’s hand. I ask him a question about the defense budget, and he begins to answer. Gingrich stops, though, when he recognizes a Washington Post reporter standing next to me. He cracks a smile.

“Hello,” Gingrich says brightly. “Nice tweet last night.” 

He resumes his answer, only to pause again. He turns back to the Post reporter and engages her in a little more friendly small talk. Gingrich’s press secretary, R.C. Hammond, tries to move the candidate along, promising the press a chance to ask questions later. Gingrich looks at Hammond in mock annoyance. “That’s no way to be,” he gently scolds as the reporters around him chuckle. He finishes an answer to my question and merrily continues.

The episode is a little confounding. Who is this gregarious, upbeat candidate, and what has he done with Newt Gingrich? Whatever’s gotten into him, he is loose and appears to be enjoying himself as he campaigns across South Carolina. “We’re just letting Newt be Newt,” says Adam Waldeck, Gingrich’s South Carolina state director.

The truth is that Gingrich is now the comfortable frontrunner, the self-assured favorite of conservatives who are searching for their champion against Obama, the happy warrior in the fight to (I’m paraphrasing the man) fundamentally reform the federal government on a profound scale, the likes of which the country has never seen in its entire history. 

At a townhall in Newberry, Gingrich is gleefully bullish. “If we win South Carolina, I predict I will be the nominee.” It’s not an unreasonable assumption; since 1980, every winner of the state’s Republican primary has gone on to capture the nomination. Two days later, though, in an interview with ABC’s Jake Tapper, Gingrich drops the pretense of uncertainty. “I’m going to be the nominee,” he tells Tapper. “It’s very hard not to look at the recent polls and think that the odds are very high I’m going to be the nominee.”

Just letting Newt be Newt.

In fact, the polls are on his side at the moment. The latest national poll from Rasmussen shows Gingrich 21 points ahead of Mitt Romney, the biggest lead for any Republican candidate this year. Gingrich has taken the top spot in the polls in Iowa and South Carolina, and he appears to be chipping away at Romney in New Hampshire. But maybe it’s the endorsement from the influential New Hampshire Union Leader just before his trip here that’s got him jawing with the media, his erstwhile mortal enemy.

Incidentally, Newt qua Newt is also something of a stand-up comedian. The emcee in Newberry introduces Gingrich with a comment that any of the Republican candidates would be better than the “train wreck” currently in the White House. Gingrich goes off script and runs with it.

“I really appreciate the way that you explained that I was better than a train wreck,” he deadpans. “I’m going to try tonight to rise to that level.”

Later in the Q&A, a voter asks if Gingrich (who will be 69 on Inauguration Day 2013) is healthy enough to serve as president. After noting he is in generally good health, Gingrich acknowledges he could stand to lose a few pounds. “God wanted me to be a bear, not a gazelle,” he says. The audience laps it up.

Gingrich even mildly pokes fun at his own penchant for whittling down every issue to a question of reason and logic. A man named “Bulldog” Burke from Saluda poses an important query in a deep Piedmont drawl: “In light of the recent events, who do you think will win the SEC championship?” The former metro Atlanta congressman says he’s pulling for the University of Georgia.

“This is an act of faith, not an act of rational calculation,” Gingrich jokes.

Amid the wisecracks, though, Gingrich offers more sober fare. Throughout the week, he wears a small flag lapel pin, and it’s conspicuously not the Stars and Stripes. On a blue field sit 13 six-pointed stars, representing the first 13 states.

“This is George Washington’s campaign flag as commander in chief of the American revolutionary army,” Gingrich says at an event in Charleston, pointing to his pin. “This flew at Yorktown outside his camp.”

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