Myrtle Beach, S.C.
The former House speaker has arrived at the post-debate spin room with a big smile on his face. He’s had a great debate performance, and he knows it. “We’re going to win here,” Newt Gingrich tells the growing crowd of reporters.
Gingrich landed stinging shots on Mitt Romney over the latter’s super PAC’s activities and regained conservative credibility with his handling of a question about race and poverty from Fox News’s Juan Williams. It was a banner night for the candidate who recently led the Republican pack.
But is a memorable debate performance enough to turn the South Carolina primary, and the whole GOP race, back toward Gingrich? There are only days until the South Carolina primary, and the polls don’t look great for him. Still, Gingrich can’t contain himself. “We have five days to win South Carolina,” Gingrich reiterates. "I think we will win South Carolina."
I ask him, since he’s trailing Romney in national polls by upwards of 23 points, for his plan if he doesn’t win South Carolina. “I was at one point 23 points ahead of Governor Romney in national polls. National polls are a reflection of news media coverage. And if I win South Carolina, you’ll see this tighten up almost overnight,” he says. “I believe I’m going to win South Carolina, so I’m not going to engage in your hypothetical.”
Gingrich has telling South Carolina conservatives that he’s the only conservative who can beat the “Massachusetts Moderate.” He has said that “any conservative who votes for anyone but Newt helps elect a moderate as the nominee.” So when he's asked about the fact that Rick Santorum beat him in Iowa and essentially tied him in New Hampshire, Gingrich simply refuses to answer.
Santorum, meanwhile, has also arrived in the spin room, and he responds to Gingrich’s claim. “Well that’s really funny from the guy who’s lost two elections to me,” he scoffs. “I mean, here’s a guy that’s finished behind me in two elections, and all of the sudden, now a vote for me is a vote for Governor Romney.”
Santorum is here to speak with reporters after a solid outing at the debate. It's a sign he's pleased with his performance as well, although Gingrich may have outshined him.
I ask Santorum if he missed opportunities to contrast himself with Romney in the debate. “I took the opportunities that were there,” Santorum says, adding that there were other issues, like health care, that never came up Monday night.
“Health care’s a big deal,” he says. “It’s the fundamental disqualifier from the standpoint of if you’re looking for someone with a clear contrast with President Obama. Governor Romney simply doesn’t live up to that contrast. It’s a very serious issue and one that we are discussing and one that we will continue to discuss. The people of South Carolina know that if you’re going to win the general election, you’ve got to have someone who can take on the issue of big government, and Governor Romney fails on a lot of fronts.”
Good performances by both would-be conservative alternatives to Romney. But will it be too little, too late?