RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Let's turn to the presidential contest now in the U.S. In South Carolina, the race to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney is hitting a fever pitch. Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Rick Perry are all going after Romney. But some of the most forceful attacks are coming from Newt Gingrich.
NPR's Tamara Keith reports on the pitch from the former speaker of the House.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: At a large meeting of business leaders in Columbia, South Carolina yesterday afternoon, Newt Gingrich looked out at the audience and made what amounts to a closing argument.
NEWT GINGRICH: Your support in the next four days can change history. If I win the primary Saturday, I will be the nominee.
KEITH: Gingrich isn't one to shy away from bold predictions. But since 1980, every winner of the GOP primary in South Carolina has gone on to win the nomination. So for Gingrich and the other so-called non-Romneys in the race, South Carolina is essentially the last stand. And Gingrich, not surprisingly, argues he is the only candidate who can defeat President Obama come November.
GINGRICH: And if I don't win the primary Saturday, we will probably nominate a moderate and the odds are fairly high he will lose to Obama. You need somebody who is tough, somebody's who's articulate...
KEITH: And he goes on - somebody you'd want to bet on in a debate against Barack Obama. Imagining a series of debates with President Obama has long been a staple of the Gingrich stump speech. But after Monday night's debate where he got a standing ovation, the idea of Gingrich the debater is again a key part of his pitch. By yesterday evening, the campaign had already cut a new ad, featuring that moment.
(SOUNDBITE OF AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Only Newt Gingrich can beat Obama.
GINGRICH: More people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history.
KEITH: Judging from the introductions at Gingrich events yesterday, you'd think everyone was talking about it.
MIKE HUCKABEE: Last night in the debate, I don't know that I've ever, ever heard a more masterful presentation of the power of work...
JIMMY METTS: But after last night, there is absolutely no doubt who can turn this country around, that can lead us back to the great country that we are.
RICH BOLEN: How about that debate last night? That was amazing.
KEITH: Those were, in order of appearance, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Lexington County Sheriff Jimmy Metts, and the county's Republican Party chairman, Rich Bolen. Bolen has endorsed Gingrich and says he thinks that debate may well have been a game changer.
BOLEN: This is the first time I've ever seen a standing ovation at a debate. And he just had that effect on the audience. I mean, it was spontaneous, it was all the people that were supporting the different candidates and they all stood up in unison for him. So that dynamic is what's changing people's minds.
KEITH: Well, maybe not everyone. John Mitchell was at the debate and saw Gingrich speak again yesterday afternoon at the business event. He says the former speaker's debate performance was strong, but it didn't do anything to overcome his lingering concerns about Gingrich.
JOHN MITCHELL: I don't know that I trust him. Maybe he's gotten older and he's changed over time, you know. But for somebody who has skeletons in his closet and yet accuses others of things at the same time, I've got a problem with that.
KEITH: Mitchell remains undecided, but he's leaning towards Romney. Allan Creighton has narrowed his choice down to two.
ALLAN CREIGHTON: Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney.
KEITH: And Creighton says Gingrich's closing argument did strike a chord with him.
CREIGHTON: I think it's a good point he makes. Whichever one wins in South Carolina will probably become the Republican nominee.
KEITH: But it didn't make you hands-down decide to vote for him.
CREIGHTON: No, not completely.
KEITH: A colleague who plans to vote for Gingrich says she'll keep twisting Creighton's arm until he sees it her way. And Gingrich will keep pitching himself as the only Republican with the hefty credentials to take on President Obama.
GINGRICH: If I am the Republican nominee, we will run a campaign of paychecks versus food stamps and we will beat Obama virtually everywhere in this county.
KEITH: That, however, is a big if, since Romney, Santorum, Perry and Paul are not backing down from this fight. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Columbia, South Carolina.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.