Beaufort, S.C.--Newt Gingrich bounded off his campaign bus here to a big crowd, wearing a big grin, proof that the former Speaker has gotten his swagger back.
At least for now.
Buoyed by an endorsement from former rival, Texas governor Rick Perry, Gingrich heads into tonight’s CNN debate with a significant head of steam, as polls show a tightening race.
Gingrich, who once had a commanding lead in the Palmetto State, but suffered major pushback from top Republicans and voters as he criticized Mitt Romney’s work at Bain Capital, sounded like a man who had turned the corner at just the right time.
He called Perry, a “terrific friend,” and said that his endorsement would matter in the weeks ahead.
“It’s very significant as far as our continuing momentum, which in some ways started with the debate Monday night, I think that having Todd Palin endorse me just before this, and then having Sarah Palin say that she would vote for me if she were here, and now having Governor Perry indicate that he would support me,” Gingrich said. “There are a lot of different things coming together across the across the whole state....a lot of good things are happening.”
Gingrich said the contest here is shaping up to be a two man contest and that polling indicates that he is the only candidate who could beat Romney, if conservative voters rallied around his candidacy.
“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 voters,” Gingrich said. “That’s just objective fact.”
He flatly declared that if he wins here, he will win the whole thing.
Meantime, the Romney campaign stepped up their attacks on Gingrich, assailing the former Georgia Congressman for being self-centered and undisciplined--Romney surrogates rolled out a similar line of attack in Iowa.
But voters here, who have chosen the party’s eventual nominee for the last three decades, seem to have taken a shine to Gingrich, and the idea of prolonging the primary season for the good of the party.
“The primary will be won by either Gingrich or Romney and if Romney wins here the primary season will be over,” said Bruce Davis, 71, a former civil rights attorney of Charleston. “If Gingrich wins, other voters will get to weigh in and there will be more vetting of the candidates and they will all be stronger and better.”
Even as he calls on conservatives to rally around him, Gingrich faced tough questions about his personal life--his ex-wife Marianne Gingrich sat for an ABC News interview where she claimed that Gingrich asked her for an “open marriage.”
Asked about his ex-wife’s claims, Gingrich, declined to comment--the subject will likely come up at tonigh’s debate.
“I’m not going to say anything about Marianne. My two daughters have already written to ABC complaining about this. It is tawdry and inappropriate,” he said. “I’m not getting involved.”
Gingrich’s multiple marraiges have been an issue for at least some evangelicals, who have rallied around Rick Santorum, specifically citing his wife. In contrast, Callista Gingrich was introduced at a conservative forum last week as the fomer speaker’s “third wife.”
Yet, some voters said Gingrich’s well-known personal baggage didn’t matter.
“His personal business is his personal business,” said Pam Sheaf, 47, a Walterboro horse instructor. “I don’t care what his personal problems were, it’s his professional record that matters. He is strong and he can get the job done.”