Newt Gingrich was a few minutes late to his appearance this morning at Waterfront Park in historic downtown Beaufort. The large, excited crowd waited patiently as Gingrich sat in his campaign bus to finish watching Rick Perry’s concession speech. When he finally emerged and took to the stage, he opened with an announcement.
“It was great to have Governor Perry speak so well about endorsing me just a few minutes ago as he withdrew from the campaign,” Gingrich said.
Later, speaking with reporters, Gingrich said the Perry endorsement is important. “I think it’s very significant as part of a continuing momentum, which in some ways started with the debate on Monday night. I think that having Todd Palin endorse me just before this, and then having Sarah Palin saying she would vote for me if she were here. And then having Governor Perry indicate his support for me,” Gingrich said. “There are a lot of different things coming together across the whole state.”
Gingrich has reason to be pleased with how things are coming together. A couple polls released today show Gingrich beating his chief rival in South Carolina, Mitt Romney, for the first time since December. Rasmussen shows Gingrich ahead of Romney, 33 percent to 31 percent, while Insider Advantage has Gingrich with 32 percent to Romney’s 29 percent. And in the first day of a tracking poll, PPP shows Gingrich pulling ahead of Romney 34 percent to 28 percent. That’s the sort of trend campaigns like to see with less than two days to go.
“I think that increasingly the polling data indicates that I’m the only conservative who has the chance to beat Romney,” Gingrich says. “If we can communicate that and get people to come in, I think the margin gets bigger and bigger. If you add up the combined total conservative vote in these polls, we would be beating Romney by a pretty impressive margin.”
I asked Gingrich if that means Rick Santorum, like Perry, should drop out of the race.
“Santorum’s got to do what he wants to do,” he said. “Look, you all said I was dead in June and July. I didn’t get out of the race. No reason he should do it if he doesn’t want. He just came in ahead in Iowa today, ending Romney’s brief period as the only guy who carried both [Iowa and New Hampshire].”
That’s different, at least in tone, from what Gingrich said earlier this week, when he warned South Carolina conservatives that a vote for Santorum or Perry would essentially help Romney win. Still, Gingrich already seems to be assuming the choice is between himself and Romney.
“The number one thing we now know is that when this becomes a two-person race, that Romney has a huge problem because he’s too liberal for most Republican voters. Now that’s just an objective fact. Governor Perry helped today. I think the fact is that with each passing week, it’s become clearer and clearer. We’re going to do everything we can in the next 72 hours to win here.”
The remaining unknown for Gingrich is the newfound focus on his past marital problems, courtesy of ABC’s forthcoming interview with his second wife, Marianne. Gingrich won’t discuss the topic with the press. “I’m not going to say anything about Marianne,” he told reporters.
But an exchange with a voter on his history of infidelity may reveal how folks inclined to vote for Gingrich are handling the uncomfortable news. The voter, after stipulating his general support, tried his best to address it. “Where I personally waver with regard to yourself, sir, is a history of things that may have to show character that some may view as questionable,” he said. “My personal thoughts are, how not only do I perceive, perhaps, lapses in personal judgments, perhaps in the past, but also how is the voting mass of America going to perceive or come to grips with that if you are the nominee and face Obama in the fall? Can you as a candidate, and as a gentleman that I respect, help me better wrestle with that problem?”
“Look, I think this is a decision you are going to have to make,” Gingrich replied. “I’ve been very open about the mistakes I have made. I have been very open about needing to go to God for forgiveness and to seek reconciliation. Callista and I have a wonderful relationship. We are very close to our two daughters and their husbands. We are very close to our two grandchildren, Maggie and Robert. I’m 68 years old. I am a grandfather. We entered this race—we had to think this through for a year. We knew we’d get beaten up. We knew we’d get smeared. We knew we’d get nasty attack ads. And we decided the country was worth the pain.”
That got an extended applause from the audience.