Gingrich Attracts Crowds In South Carolina

GOP voters welcomed Newt Gingrich as he campaigned in South Carolina this week. Gingrich crossed the state from the coastal counties to the mountains as he continued to rise in some polls. The former House Speaker is showcasing his experience and his ideas to Southern Republicans as he vies to become the GOP presidential nominee.

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The website Real Clear Politics has a chart showing the poll numbers of Republican presidential candidates in recent months. You see big peaks and then gigantic drops for Michelle Bachmann, then Rick Perry, then Herman Cain. Mitt Romney has been relatively steady by comparison. But for the moment, Newt Gingrich is on top. And he campaigned this week in the early primary state of South Carolina, hoping to solidify his support in a way that others have not. NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: Gingrich seemed at home as he stood on stage before packed audiences, like this one at the Newberry Opera House, about 45 miles northwest of Columbia. He walked around while he talked, much like he may have done in his classroom at West Georgia College. Gingrich constantly repeated his goal to challenge President Obama to seven Lincoln/Douglas style debates.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

NEWT GINGRICH: And I've said, to be fair, that if he wants to he can use a teleprompter.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GINGRICH: I mean, look, if you had to defend Obamacare for three hours, wouldn't you want a teleprompter?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LOHR: Gingrich told this group he got re-engaged in politics just a few years after he left office. But he says it was in 2009 that he started thinking about running for president in earnest and began designing his campaign.

GINGRICH: I don't mind telling you my strategy. It's very simple. It is performance and ideology. What you have today is a radical who's incompetent.

LOHR: And Gingrich says he wants to organize a new Republican Revolution, not unlike what happened in 1994 when a GOP majority was elected in the House for the first time in 40 years. He says that will get people in Washington working again, and he points to his experience with President Bill Clinton.

GINGRICH: He'd explain what he couldn't do. I'd explain what I couldn't do. And then we'd figure out what we could do. And if you do that relentlessly, it's very exhausting, but if you do it relentlessly it is amazing how much you get done by the time it's over.

LOHR: Inside the theater, Edward Cousar from Rock Hill, who works for the state's Black Republican PAC, says people here like Gingrich's style.

EDWARD COUSAR: I mean, you have other candidates I'm not going to name, they're going to say, well, they don't have any solutions. All they want to do is get up there and complain and say the president isn't doing anything. That's fine. We know we don't have a good president, but we need solutions to these problems.

LOHR: And Cousar says with Gingrich people know what they're getting.

Just north, in Greenville, hundreds packed into Tommy's Ham House yesterday to see Gingrich.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Good morning, sir. I'd travel a hundred miles to be with you any day.

LOHR: This down home restaurant is a regular stop for GOP politicians passing through the state.

GINGRICH: If you want your children and your grandchildren to have a future of food stamps depending on the federal government, you should vote for Barack Obama, because that's the future he represents. But if you'd like your children and grandchildren to earn a paycheck and be independent, you should vote for Newt Gingrich, because he represents...

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

LOHR: Gingrich still has to win over some who have questions about his personal life, including infidelity and three marriages, and about the more than $1.5 million he received as a consultant for mortgage giant Freddie Mac. But Sam Batson, a regular at Tommy's, doesn't think those questions will necessarily hurt Gingrich.

SAM BATSON: That pops up in your mind. There is some baggage back there, but sometimes you have to take the best that's available.

LOHR: Karoline Shaffer is a Republican, but in 2008 she says she voted for the Democrat, something she's not likely to do this time.

KAROLINE SHAFFER: The last election I voted for our president. He said some wonderful things, that I thought he was just dazzling. But Newt Gingrich, he's got some good stuff to say, and I really believe that he means what he's saying.

LOHR: Last night on Fox News, Gingrich said even he is surprised by how rapidly he has risen in the GOP field.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)

GINGRICH: Whereas I would have thought originally it was going to be Mitt and not-Mitt, I think it's - it may turn out to be Newt and not-Newt.

LOHR: Gingrich says he's the most electable candidate, and GOP voters in this state are open to hearing more.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Greenville, South Carolina.

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