Since he began campaigning in earnest in South Carolina, Newt Gingrich’s stump speech hasn’t changed very much.
He refrains from criticizing his fellow GOP candidates. He calls Barack Obama a Saul Alinsky-style Socialist and the best food stamp president in history. He challenges the President to a Lincoln-Douglas-style series of debates. He talks about American exceptionalism and the anti-religious strain he believes is spreading across the country.
What has changed is Gingrich’s audience, particularly its size. Six months ago the Gingrich campaign was all but dead. Gingrich had slammed GOP golden boy Paul Ryan’s budget plan, calling it “right-wing social engineering” and voters’ backlash was quick and firm.
The talk around his campaign was of Tiffany’s expense accounts rather than accountability. He went on a cruise while other contenders kissed babies and spoke at Rotary Clubs in Conway, N.H. Key consultants defected, including former SCGOP chairman and RNC chairman candidate Katon Dawson.
Those days are all but forgotten.
On Thursday, a crowd of more than 300 members of the Upstate business community listened as Gingrich spoke for nearly an hour on subjects far and wide at the Global Trade Park in Greenville.
And, as he has always done, took questions from the audience.
It was a sharp contrast to the campaign stops in the Upstate of the other frontrunners such as Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, whose events have been tightly controlled, with limited and sometimes no access to the media. The campaign is well aware of recent criticisms levied against Gingrich’s biggest challenger, Mitt Romney. Gingrich’s accessibility is no accident, but neither is it a change.
Thursday’s turnout confirmed Gingrich’s frontrunner status and recent polls say his lead has been growing rather than shrinking, a claim that could not be made by either Bachmann, Perry or Herman Cain, all of whom spent time out front.
Still, judging from queries he fielded from a few audience members, the authenticity of Gingrich’s conservatism is an open question to some on the right, which would include the small group of protestors outside the entrance to the business park where the event was held. The protestors were critical of Gingrich for flip-flopping on issues such as climate change.
Gingrich supporters have told Patch on Thursday and at other events that they view his knowledge of the machinations of the Beltway as a positive. Such a competency is of little interest to the Tea Party set.
Gingrich press secretary R.C. Hammond also touts his boss’ insiderness as a mark in his favor.
“Newt has made a career out of building large coalitions.” Hammond said. “He’s doing that with Iowa evangelicals, with Main Street small business owners in New Hampshire and voters with national security concerns like many veterans here in South Carolina. That sort of leadership has been absent from the national stage for a long time.”
Gingrich, as he has at most every stop, did not mention any of the other GOP contenders during his remarks, even though his comments have already made plenty against him. The volleys thus far have been issue-based. But Gingrich’s team and his supporters know attacks about Gingrich’s personal history are not far away.
Hammond believes Gingrich is ready.
“Newt has been forward about any questions about his past,” Hammond said. He believes personal attacks will carry little weight at this stage, “Voters are very good at knowing when they’re being misled,.”
Gingrich was introduced by Greenville Mayor Knox White, who holds one of the most coveted endorsements in the state. White has not indicated when he will back a candidate.
Also in attendance was Vivian Wong, of Greenville, chairwoman of Pacific Gateway Capital and a key player in the South Carolina GOP. Wong had in the state. She praised Huntsman, but also told Patch: “Gingrich is a very impressive guy. He has a good answer for everything.”
Whether Gingrich has risen because of his own abilities or because of the mis-steps of others, because of gaffes or a failure to expand on a core message is immaterial at this point. Most every voter Patch has spoken that now supports Gingrich admitted that they looked at other candidates first.
Exceptions to that rule are Donald and Marilyn Reichert, who own a small financial management firm in Greenville with nine employees. They have been Gingrich supporters from the start.
“He’s had the most experience and holds the same core values that we do,” Donald Weichert said. “We’re just tired of lip service and he’s been tested in a very public way.”
The fact that a 68-year-old politician who has been a presence on the national scene for over 30 years could be looked at with such a fresh set of eyes by so many voters has Gingrich on the verge of a comeback that can only be described as Nixonian.
Heading to his car, engulfed by microphones and cameras, the barely-concealed grin on Gingrich’s face suggested that the historian in him understood what he’s on the brink of accomplishing better than anyone.