The Washington Post

Voters say they opted for Gingrich’s ‘guts’

— They wanted a fighter.

On Saturday, as Newt Gingrich won a startling victory in the South Carolina Republican primary, many voters chose him for reasons that had little to do with his ideas, his hyper-complex proposals to fix immigration or Social Security.

Many voters said they liked the scrap in the former House speaker’s personality — his willingness to seek confrontations with his GOP rivals and the news media. That, they said, was what the GOP would need in the race against President Obama this fall.

“I think Mitt Romney is a good man,” said Harold Wade, 85, leaving a polling place in this picturesque seaside suburb outside Charleston. “But I think we’ve reached a point where we need someone who’s mean.”

And Gingrich, he said, was the only one mean enough.

“What we need is someone who’s got some brains,” Wade said, explaining his vote for the former speaker. “And we need someone with some guts.”

Surveys of voters at South Carolina polling places showed the roots of Gingrich’s resurgence. About two-thirds of voters said recent debates — in which Gingrich stood out, partly by blasting debate moderators for their questions — were the most important thing in their voting decision, or one of several important factors.

Equally important may have been what Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, didn’t do this week. Weeks ago, back in Iowa, Romney’s campaign and supporters had crushed a Gingrich surge with ads that cast the former speaker as an unreliable conservative.

This time around, Romney’s supporters were slower to react. His campaign highlighted Gingrich’s 1997 reprimand for violating House ethics rules, and it rolled out legislators who said Gingrich had supported “earmarks” and pork-barrel spending.

But they may have waited too long.

Early last week, before those debates, polls showed Romney with about a 10-point lead in South Carolina. It seemed that this primary would be the beginning of a Romney cakewalk, and the beginning of Gingrich’s end.

Way back then, both Edmund Hardy and George McCutchen had sent in absentee ballots for Romney. On Saturday, they were still happy with that choice.

“I like Newt, and I would love to see him in a Cabinet position” said Hardy, 72. “He’s a bright guy.” But he thought the former speaker carried too much political baggage to win.

McCutchen, 67, said that one of the main reasons he voted for Romney was that he wanted to “speed this process up and have it come to a conclusion.”

“I hate what’s going on,” Hardy said. Both were still dressed in camouflage from a morning of duck hunting, digging into plates of pork at a barbecue restaurant called Sweatman’s in Holly Hills, S.C.

“The way they are beating each other up,” said McCutchen, “it opens wounds and unearths where the vulnerabilities are.”

Gingrich had done a good deal of that beating-up. He criticized Romney for not releasing his tax returns, arguing that “if there’s anything in there that is going to help us lose the election, we should know it before the nomination.”

And, for many in South Carolina, here was a signal of something important. Gingrich looked a man who was tough enough to win.

“We want someone who could beat Obama, and I think that’s Newt. He can handle him. Looking at Newt in the debates, he can handle anybody,” said Debbie Peterson of Piedmont. “I have a little bit of a problem with the divorces, but I need somebody to beat Obama. I like Romney, he is decent and moral, but I just don’t see him beating Obama.

“So it’s got to be Newt,” she said.

In Sullivan’s Island, E.P. Chiola had been for a third candidate — former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.). But then he thought about the battle ahead.

And he, too, turned to Gingrich.

“The more I thought about it, the more I decided I’m looking for a good fight,” Chiola said.

Romney, by contrast, spent the week fumbling to answer questions about his wealth and his tax returns. Some voters paid no mind to Romney’s troubles: Michael and Elizabeth Ricciardone of Mount Pleasant, S.C., said they still liked Romney’s business know-how and his steady character. They both voted for Romney on Saturday.

“It’s okay to be successful in this country. Redistribution of wealth is not in my vocabulary,” he said.

But others felt turned off.

“He’s too slick for me. Too polished,” said Jim Near, 56, a real estate agent and meteorologist from Mount Pleasant. “We all pay taxes. There should be no issue there. His responses were no good.”

He decided that Gingrich wouldn’t work, either: he had too much political baggage and that Santorum lacked the support to take the nomination. So, if Near couldn’t pick a candidate who would win, he would pick at least pick one he thought was leveling with him.

“Ron Paul seems the most honest. He’s not trying to portray himself as anything other than who he is,” Near said.

Staff writers Karen Tumulty, Philip Rucker, Nia-Malika Henderson and Jason Horowitz, all in South Carolina, contributed to this report.

Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.
David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Comments
Show Comments
The Democrats debated Thursday night. Get caught up on the race.
The Post's Chris Cillizza on the Democratic debate...
On Clinton: She poked a series of holes in Sanders's health-care proposal and broadly cast him as someone who talks a big game but simply can't hope to achieve his goals.

On Sanders: If the challenge was to show that he could be a candidate for people other than those who already love him, he didn't make much progress toward that goal. But he did come across as more well-versed on foreign policy than in debates past.
The PBS debate in 3 minutes
Quoted
We are in vigorous agreement here.
Hillary Clinton, during the PBS Democratic debate, a night in which she and Sanders shared many of the same positions on issues
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the polls as he faces rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz heading into the S.C. GOP primary on Feb. 20.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 18%
Fact Checker
Trump’s claim that his border wall would cost $8 billion
The billionaire's claim is highly dubious. Based on the costs of the Israeli security barrier (which is mostly fence) and the cost of the relatively simple fence already along the U.S.-Mexico border, an $8 billion price tag is simply not credible.
Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio
The complicated upcoming voting schedule
Feb. 20

Democrats caucus in Nevada; Republicans hold a primary in South Carolina.

Feb. 23

Republicans caucus in Nevada.

Feb. 27

Democrats hold a primary in South Carolina.

Upcoming debates
Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands
Most Read

politics

Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.