Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich speaks at Tommy’s Ham House, in Greenville, South Carolina, November 30, 2011. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro, File)
Columbia—Newt Gingrich looks poised to become the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney in the crucial South Carolina primary. The most recent state polls all have Gingrich in second, although some show the gap between him and Romney widening. And Gingrich’s campaign is quick to point out the most encouraging, if obscure, cross tabs, such as Public Policy Polling’ finding that Gingrich was the top second choice among voters and the candidate they most trust on foreign policy.
The anecdotal feeling on the ground is that Gingrich is picking up momentum, which may be reinforced by his strong performance in Monday night’s debate in Myrtle Beach. At the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s candidate forum across the street from the debate on Monday afternoon, Gingrich got the warmest reception of any speaker. There was palpable excitement to see him, with chants of “We Want Newt” breaking out. Once Gingrich started, his fans in the crowd frequently interrupted with cheers and shouts of “We need you, Newt,” and “You can do it, Newt.”
Gingrich knows the secret to his success among Republicans is his penchant for mocking and excoriating liberals. In South Carolina that approach has taken on a racially inflammatory element, and it seems to be working. The debate audience booed moderator Juan Williams for daring to ask whether Gingrich’s assertion that black parents should want “jobs instead of food stamps for their children” might be racially insensitive. Then Gingrich thrilled the crowd, bringing them to their feet, defending his remarks. Gingrich boldly promised to “continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job,” as if the majority of poor people were not, in fact, employed and as if the unemployed lack knowledge rather than opportunity. By Tuesday he had cut an ad with the clip, titled in typically grandiose Gingrich fashion “The Moment.”
Liberal writers argue Gingrich’s rhetoric—calling President Obama “the best food stamp president in history” and so forth—is a dog whistle designed to appeal to South Carolina’s white Republican voters. This was the first state to secede from the Union. Surrounding the state capitol building there is a street named for slavery defender John Calhoun, a statue of segregation defender Strom Thurmond and a Confederate flag flying.
Veteran South Carolina politicos readily agree, off the record of course, that Gingrich is intentionally tapping into this long vein of racial animosity. In the years since the Civil Rights Act, white South Carolinians may have largely ceased pining for the days of segregated water fountains. And anyway, no politician can call for returning to them. But they often resent African-Americans and social welfare programs that they view through a racial lens. Gingrich, who held a Congressional seat in neighboring Georgia, is playing to that sentiment more effectively than his opponents.