How Newt Gingrich Changes GOP Race With S.C. Win

Gingrich earned a decisive win in the South Carolina primary, so now the Republican presidential nomination race has three different winners in three different states. Host Michel Martin explores what this means going into the Florida primary, and previews the State of the Union speech. She hears from journalists Mary Kate Cary and Cynthia Tucker.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, it's been 39 years since the Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion in most cases, but it's still the subject of heated debate. We'll have a conversation with three young women who tell us how they are thinking through this important issue in their own lives. We'll hear that conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to take a look at one of this weekend's biggest match ups. And, no, it has nothing to do with football. Over the weekend, voters in South Carolina went to the polls in that state's Republican presidential primary. After the votes were tallied, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich walked away with the big win. Now, if you've been keeping score, that's three different winners in three different states. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum in Iowa, Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in New Hampshire and now former Georgia congressman, the former speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich in South Carolina.

We wanted to get a sense of what this means for the GOP field and for the rest of the race, so we've called on our trusted political team. Cynthia Tucker is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. And she's now a journalism professor at the University of Georgia. Mary Kate Cary is a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. She's also a former presidential speechwriter. She worked for President George H.W. Bush. Thank you both so much for being with us once again.

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Great to be here.

MARY KATE CARY: Good to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: Such a busy weekend for political news, but we have to start in South Carolina. So, Mary Kate, let me just play a short clip of some of what Newt Gingrich had to say Saturday night after his big win.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

NEWT GINGRICH: We don't have the kind of money that at least one of the candidates have, but we do have ideas and we do have people. Now, we have proved here in South Carolina that people power with the right ideas beats big money. And with your help, we're going to prove it again in Florisa. Thank you and good luck. And God bless you.

MARTIN: Now, what you didn't hear is that - we didn't play this part of it and I know you heard it - is that in a lot of his speech he was very conciliatory toward his other rivals. But that is not the tone he took in the last debate leading up to the primary.

CARY: No, no, no.

MARTIN: He's very fiery, very aggressive, very combative, especially towards the media, the questioner John King, in particular, of CNN. So, I just want to ask you. So, Mary Kate, a lot of people are attributing that debate performance...

CARY: Oh, sure.

MARTIN: ...is contributing to this late surge that took him over the top in South Carolina. Do you think that that's true?

CARY: Oh, yeah. The exit polls showed that two out of three South Carolina voters said debates matter. One out of two said that they made up their minds at the last minute. As you know, there was a debate, you know, right up to the last minute there and I think it had a huge effect. It placed Newt Gingrich's strong suite to be in so many debates and it doesn't cost him any money. All he's got to do is pay for his plane ticket to the debates. And...

MARTIN: But tell me why you think that that was so effective. And one of the things I think is worth noting is that he led by a wide margin among people who are sort of self-described religious right, evangelical Christians. There was a little gender gap, despite the speculations against that the allegations raised by his second wife...

CARY: Right.

MARTIN: ...former wife Marianne that he cheated on her, that he was a serial adulterer. That he wanted an open marriage.

CARY: Open marriage, right.

MARTIN: And even after she announced that she was ill, and it didn't seem to matter that he did beat other candidates by a larger margin among men but was tops among women as well, including among married women.

CARY: Yeah. That is contrary to the gender gap polling that was going on before the primary took place. Going into it, Mitt Romney was - Mitt Romney was ahead with women by two points. Newt Gingrich was down by 12 points with women. And then all of a sudden, it flipped around. I think it was a lot of things. Part of it was Rick Perry pulling out of the race and shifting his momentum over to Gingrich.

I think part of it was Huntsman dropping out. I think part of it was some of these superPAC ads which I assume we can talk about further as well. But I think basically the Marianne Gingrich story - I wrote a blog about this Friday. The thing that gets people upset about that story is not the prurient interest of, you know, somebody's sex life or their marriage or whatever. It's that Newt Gingrich doesn't play by the rules the rest of us play by.

And in some ways, that's a good thing. And I think that's what you saw in the debates going after the media and stuff like that. But when it comes to character and values, it may be a bad thing. I think people were willing to overcome that because they saw that debate performance and liked the rule breaker part of him in that situation. I think that's what carried him in the end.

MARTIN: So, Cynthia, who do you think President Obama's team - how do you think President Obama's team is reading this? What do you make of it?

TUCKER: Well, I think that President Obama's team is still planning to face off against Mitt Romney as the eventual nominee. And I think they are right about that because of Romney's organizational strengths. Going into Florida - Florida is a big state, a much bigger state population-wise than any of the previous three states where Republican primaries or caucuses have been held. There are also several major media markets in Florida, which means that candidates can't do the kind of retail politicking that they have relied on in the past.

Mitt Romney has money. He's already spent money in Florida. He's already opened several offices in Florida. And Newt Gingrich has very little money. Having said that, let me say that Romney faces a couple of weaknesses in Florida he didn't have before. One obviously is Newt Gingrich's new momentum. But the other is that one of the things - not only did Newt Gingrich have a good debate performance in that last South Carolina debate, but Mitt Romney had a poor performance.

He still hasn't learned how to talk about his wealth and specifically his taxes. He plans to release his tax returns this week and perhaps by the next debate, which is tonight I believe that there will be a Republican debate. Mitt Romney will have better answers on his taxes and how he's made his money.

MARTIN: Cynthia Tucker is a journalism professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Mary Kate Cary is a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. We're checking in on the news, political news of the weekend which continues, Cynthia, because the State of the Union Address is tomorrow night. How important is this for the president? I mean, right now it's been, really, all he's had to do is kind of stand back and let the Republicans fight among themselves really.

TUCKER: Right.

MARTIN: He sort of said that. So, Cynthia, what do you think about tomorrow night. And, Mary Kate, you know I'm dying to hear from you because you actually wrote the Republican response one year.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CARY: I did.

MARTIN: Which none of us can say. But, Cynthia, what do you think? What tact do you think the president should take tomorrow night?

TUCKER: More than other recent speeches that the president has given, the State of the Union Address this year will be a curtain raiser on his campaign. Very few observers don't expect that the president will sound the same things that we're going to be hearing from him all year as his campaign themes. He's going to be populist. He's going to talk about the economy because that is still the number one issue, and he will invite a clear contrast between himself and Republicans.

Most Democrats believe in an activist government, that government can help with just the right combination of incentives and regulations, that the government can help produce a vigorous economy. And that's one of the things to look out for in President Obama's State of the Union speech. He will say that Republicans believe you go it alone, free market, winner take all. Losers left as road kill and I don't believe in that.

MARTIN: And, Mary Kate, what do you think that the Republicans need to do in their response as a person who's actually written one of those?

CARY: Yeah. Back in the day, I wrote the first State of the Union response by a woman, which was Governor Christie Todd Whitman. It was the first State of the Union after the Republicans took over in '94. And she was also the first governor to ever do it. Now, governors do it all the time. So, tonight's State of the Union response will be by Mitch Daniels, governor of Indiana. As you recall, last year, Paul Ryan did it. The year before that - not so good - Bobby Jindal.

And so it's a way for the party to spotlight their up and coming back ventures. And so, I think this is not great necessarily for Romney to have Mitch Daniels suddenly getting a lot of attention tomorrow night. We've got a debate tonight, as Cynthia mentioned. We've got another debate Thursday night. And I think there's just going to be a lot of interesting political rhetoric this week. There's rumors...

MARTIN: It keeps kind of reinforcing this anybody but Mitt feeling.

CARY: Yeah.

MARTIN: Even though Mitch Daniels, the Indiana governor, took himself out of the presidential campaign for personal reasons. He just said he didn't want to subject his family for reasons we don't have time to go into.

CARY: Right.

MARTIN: But, again, the Tea Party, once again this year is also offering another response.

CARY: Right.

MARTIN: And Herman Cain is going to be giving this one. What do you think about that?

CARY: Well, last year it was Michele Bachmann, if you recall. And CNN covered it live, the networks did, I guess all of them. This year, it's not so clear whether they're going to carry it live again and have two State of the Union responses, so that remains to be seen.

But I think the reason they picked Herman Cain was because of the 9-9-9 plan and they want to talk about - keep the focus on taxes. I think most Republicans are hoping the president will come out tonight and endorse Simpson-Bowles and take it back off the shelf, but maybe that's too much to ask. But that would be a game changer in my mind if he brought Simpson-Bowles back on the table.

MARTIN: Which is the deficit - bipartisan deficit reduction plan that a bipartisan committee could not sort of advance through its own.

CARY: Right. The president supported it, but then didn't enact his recommendation.

MARTIN: Well, Cynthia, before we let you go - we only have a minute left, so you have to be brief. But, you know, Congressman Gabrielle Giffords announced over the weekend that she's stepping down. She says she needs to focus on her recovery after that terrible shooting in her district, you know, last year. I know that you feel she's played an important role in our politics. What do you think her exit from the national stage means, though?

TUCKER: Well, Democrats are a little worried about holding onto her seat. Nobody can blame Gabby Giffords for making the move that she made. She's made a remarkable recovery so far, but she still has a ways to go. Nobody can blame her for focusing on her personal health. But Democrats were hoping that her husband would step up and declare that he would run for her seat. He's become a popular figure in his own right.

Arizona is a state that has traditionally been Republican, has been trending a little bit more toward the Democrats. But it could fall back into Republican hands unless a very popular Democrat runs.

MARTIN: But doesn't it seem to be that members are saying that they're going to sit together as they did last year, kind of in her honor? We'll see if that changes anything...

TUCKER: Oh, that's nice. Yeah, that's nice.

MARTIN: ...the temperature there. Mary Kate Cary is a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. She's a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. She was here with us in Washington, D.C. Cynthia Tucker's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a journalism professor at the University of Georgia. She joined us from member station WUGA in Athens, Georgia. Ladies, thank you so much.

CARY: Great to be here.

TUCKER: Thanks, Michel.

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