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.
On Tuesday afternoon Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry each addressed the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce in Columbia. Gingrich easily outshone his competitors. Santorum raced through his speech, seeming ill at ease, and barely elicited any reaction from the audience. Perry was surprisingly fluid—his trademark awkward pauses were shorter and less frequent than usual—but he didn’t move the audience dramatically. Gingrich, on the other hand, was speaking to his people. These are the sorts of establishment Republicans among whom Gingrich must compete with Romney. He made them laugh and clap frequently, even sometimes at once, such as when he promised to eliminate the “death tax” because “it is immoral to make you go to the undertaker and the IRS in the same week.”
I sat next to State Senator Jake Knotts, who you may remember achieved brief national fame in 2010 for slurring  gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley, who is Indian-American, by saying, “We already got one raghead in the White House. We don’t need another in the Governor’s Mansion.” Knotts told me he is undecided among the presidential candidates but he will support “the one who proves out to be a Reagan Republican.”
Gingrich seems to have the best intuitive grasp of how to appeal to voters like Senator Knotts. He invokes Reagan constantly, claiming at least partial credit for Reagan’s electoral victories in 1980 and 1984, the passing of Reagan’s legislative agenda and the economic boom of the 1980s. “I’m the only candidate who worked with Reagan,” Gingrich claims. And what would Gingrich do in 2013? “Pick up the Reagan cookbook.”
The chamber audience, composed of business leaders from around the state, was several hundred strong. But in state with a 28 percent African-American population, I counted only three African-Americans in the audience. (Only 12.1 percent of the firms in the state are black-owned, according to the Census.)
When I asked Governor Haley, who is supporting Mitt Romney, whether Romney’s Mormonism would be an obstacle to him winning South Carolina, she claimed her own election proved the state’s electorate no longer harbors any bias. “You’re talking to someone who was just elected in South Carolina as an Indian female,” said Haley, “I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.” But South Carolina Democrats say that Haley won by running against President Obama. The Republican Governor’s Association, for example, ran a commercial  calling Haley’s opponent, Vincent Sheheen, “an Obama liberal in our own backyard,” that showed Obama, in shadow, transmogrifying into Sheheen. Those ads, they say, played to racial animosity towards Obama and were crucial to Haley’s relatively narrow  win.
After the debate on Monday night, Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond offered me the “some of his best friends are black defense” for Gingrich, noting that he grew up as an Army brat in the desegregated military and is being supported by J.C. Watts, the African-American former congressman from Oklahoma. Hammond also argues that liberals and African-Americans should appreciate that Gingrich is raising the issue of poverty, even if they disagree with his solution. (Gingrich’s solution, naturally, is a bunch of tax cuts that will supposedly spur job growth.)
It’s actually a brilliant piece of jiu-jitsu: Gingrich plays to racial animosity while claiming credit for trying to empower poor minorities. When Gingrich says, as he does at every stump speech, that his message of “jobs versus [President Obama’s dispensing of] food stamps,” will appeal to “people of every background,” he sounds like he is actually offering a vision for a broader, more diverse Republican Party. Gingrich told the Chamber of Commerce that such a message would be so potent in the general election “there would be no safe states for President Obama.” But at the same time Gingrich is appealing to whites, particularly in South Carolina, who may tend to feel that minorities are freeloaders. When he says black parents will take him up on his offer of jobs instead of food stamps, some listeners might hear “get blacks off of food stamps,” particularly when it comes after his boast of having passed welfare reform.
Gingrich probably won’t win South Carolina, but he’s the only candidate who seems to have a chance of stopping Romney here. Gingrich certainly thinks so. His campaign downplays the necessity of winning the state outright. “We want to finish as well as well as possible,” said Hammond. “[If] we finish first Romney goes home. [If] we finish second we’ll get him in Florida.” But speaking to the Chamber on Tuesday Gingrich sounded more desperate. “Your support in the next four days can change history,” Gingrich said. “If I carry your state I will be the Republican nominee. If Romney wins this state, we’ll probably nominate a Massachusetts moderate who can’t beat Obama.”