Gingrich has surged in the past few days after struggling to find a consistent theme in response to a barrage of attacks against him in Iowa. The resurgence owes a lot to Gingrich’s strong debate performances, which have relied on a personal intangible that his opponents have been unable to match.
Call it Southern swagger.
Part of his success in South Carolina is attributable to his ability to meet people where they live, in the cultural sense, playing directly to their regional sense of self.
“We also have a very deep strain in us that often our intellectuals are terrified of, and it comes in part from South Carolina and from Western North Carolina and Tennessee. It’s the Jacksonian tradition,” Gingrich said at an event in Duncan, S.C., near the North Carolina border, last week. “[President Andrew] Jackson represented a Scotch-Irish tradition that was represented not far up the road here in Kings Mountain where the Americans cheerfully gathered together and slaughtered the British in revenge. . . . We are a tough country, we are a country that believes in a flag that has a snake on it that says ‘Don’t Tread On Me.’ ”
For Gingrich, South Carolina has been home turf, and rope line by rope line, he has won over people across this state who see in him a fellow traveler who speaks their language and can draw a clear contrast with President Obama.
They treat him like family, offering two-handed shakes, pats on the shoulder and “God bless you, Newt.” Often, they lean in close to whisper in his ear or they will rattle off where they are from — Augusta, Orangeburg, Spartanburg — and run through their family lines to see if there are family ties.
On the debate stage, Gingrich is the happy Southern warrior, reading the crowds like a Baptist preacher searching for the Amen corner.
And he has found a huge base of support, rousing the audiences to standing ovations, with his specific knowledge of state issues, and the pit-bull charisma of a well-mannered rebel.
“Mitt Romney, he’s too much of a gentleman,” said Tom Merriman, 56, of Lexington, S.C. “Newt is more confident and plainspoken.”
In contrast to Romney, who has taken to dressing down and preferring to wear no tie, Gingrich almost always appears here in a suit and tie and prefers to lecture like the college professor he once was, rather than just talk.
Still, Gingrich has found an easy connection with audiences in almost every setting.
With the penny-loafer set, he can name-drop Strom Thurmond, as he has done several times, and talk about Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., where one of his daughters went to school.