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Feeling the South Carolina surge, Newt Gingrich digs in

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich listens Friday during a visit to Children’s Hospital in Charleston, S.C.

Associated Press

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich listens Friday during a visit to Children’s Hospital in Charleston, S.C.

ORANGEBURG, S.C.

Newt Gingrich was in his element: on stage, a rapt crowd hanging on his words, the spotlight of the national media upon him, as he surges in South Carolina the day before today's Republican primary.

This didn't look like a candidate whose ex-wife, Marianne, accused him on national television the day before of wanting an "open marriage."

Nor did he seem like the victim of a classic South Carolina dirty trick earlier in the day when a fake CNN news alert email falsely claimed he wanted his ex "to abort a pregnancy conceived during the affair that preceded her marriage to Gingrich."

Instead, Gingrich looked like the confident front-runner he always thought he should be.

"We knew, when we decided we'd run, we knew there'd be negative attack ads, we knew the elite media would attack us," Gingrich told the overflow crowd of hundreds here.

The criticisms and controversies so far have allowed him to grow stronger by giving him the chance to showcase what Mitt Romney lacks: pugnacity.

"He's a fighter. He's fearless. He's not politically correct. I love that," said Carolyn Walker, a 46-year-old Republican from nearby Lexington.

Thursday night's debate, in which Gingrich tongue-lashed CNN moderator John King over the "open marriage" question, sealed the deal for numerous voters interviewed Friday. Next to bashing President Barack Obama, attacking the news media is a path to electoral gold among conservatives.

Strong signs suggest that Gingrich is about to get a boost, analysts said Friday, as he rides a wave of momentum cresting off two strong debate performances here this week.

"This Gingrich thing — you can feel it," said Dave Woodard, a professor of political science at Clemson University and a Republican consultant.

Still, the race remains too close to call. Romney, who saw his double-digit lead in polls here a week ago erode into a virtual tie with Gingrich, remains formidable, well-financed and runs an extensive campaign organization.

Although a new Clemson University Palmetto Poll released Friday found Gingrich up by 6 percentage points, its error margin was 5 points and the survey was taken over the previous six days. That means many of the poll's 429 respondents hadn't heard the many late-breaking campaign developments in this tumultuous week. One of every five voters polled remained undecided.

In addition, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum closed the week with a strong debate performance Thursday night. That followed news that he had won the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3 after all, rather than finishing eight votes behind Romney as originally reported. Santorum also won the endorsement last weekend from a group of prominent national evangelical leaders, which could give him a boost with social conservative voters, who made up 60 percent of this state's GOP electorate in 2008.

Last, there's Texas Rep. Ron Paul, whose impassioned libertarian following assures that he'll take a slice of the South Carolina vote; polls put him in the 10 percent to 15 percent range.

Since 1980, no Republican has won his party's nomination without first winning South Carolina's primary. A Gingrich win would anoint him as the Republicans' most prominent conservative contender and build his momentum.

But Gingrich isn't just running to be commander in chief. He's campaigning as thinker in chief, lecturer in chief, a man aptly called "speaker" from his time leading the U.S. House.

For Republicans and those upset with Obama, Gingrich promises to fulfill a deep-seated need to see Obama — whom many see as all talk — beaten and flustered on the debate stage.

Speaking without notes, Gingrich drew rousing applause for saying he'll even allow Obama to have a TelePrompTer to explain "Obamacare." He won cheers for his standard campaign lines, for instance noting that, "There's no provision in the Constitution for a federal Department of Happiness. There's no provision for Happiness Stamps for the under-happy."

And he strayed into history as well.

"Happiness in the 18th century meant wisdom and virtue not hedonism and acquisition," said Gingrich, who has weathered bad press for his big Tiffany's expense account and his affairs as well.

Gingrich never mentioned the CNN debate. But South Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers made sure to mention it in his warm-up to Gingrich's speech. Weathers said he overheard King chat with Gingrich after the debate.

"You kinda really let me have it," King told Gingrich, Weathers said.

"You kinda deserved it," Gingrich replied.

Later, Gingrich scolded reporters for bringing up his ex-wife's claims. Noting how well he's doing in the polls, he also chided them for asking about his finances. Romney has a big money advantage — an edge that is likely to haunt Gingrich in Florida.

Gingrich said he'll do fine in Florida.

"The Washington consultant model is you have to measure a campaign by its finances because that's how the consultants get paid," Gingrich said. "The fact that they suck all of you into their standard is just comical. … You all ought to take a deep breath and a step back."

David Lightman, Steven Thomma and William Douglas of McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.

Feeling the South Carolina surge, Newt Gingrich digs in 01/20/12 [Last modified: Friday, January 20, 2012 11:12pm]
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