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South Carolina: Gingrich's Last Stand?

GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich addresses the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday in Columbia, S.C. The state holds its primary on Saturday.
Paul J. Richards
AFP/Getty Images
GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich addresses the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday in Columbia, S.C. The state holds its primary on Saturday.

In South Carolina, the race to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney is hitting a fever pitch. The state is seen by many as the last stop before inevitability in the GOP primary.

In campaign stops Tuesday, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich laid out what sounded like an ultimatum.

"Your support the next four days could change history," Gingrich said, looking out into the audience at a large meeting of business leaders in the state's capital, Columbia. "If I win the primary Saturday, I will be the nominee."

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 that he is the only candidate who can defeat President Obama come November.

"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," Gingrich said, not-so-subtly alluding to front-runner Romney. "You need somebody who's tough — somebody who's articulate."

And, he goes on, somebody you'd want to bet on in a debate against Obama.

Gingrich The Debater

Imagining a series of debates with the president 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. The campaign quickly produced a new ad featuring that moment.

"This is the first time I have ever seen a standing ovation at a debate," says Lexington County Republican Party Chairman Rich Bolen, who endorsed Gingrich.

He thinks that debate may well have been a game changer. "It was spontaneous. It was all the people that were supporting all the different candidates, and they all stood up in unison for him. So that dynamic is what's changing people's minds."

Still Undecided

Well, maybe not everyone.

"I don't know that I trust him," says John Mitchell, who was at the debate and saw Gingrich speak again at the business event.

Mitchell says the former House speaker's debate performance was strong, but it didn't do anything to overcome his lingering concerns about Gingrich. "Maybe he's gotten older and he's changed over time. 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," Mitchell says.

He remains undecided but says he's leaning toward Romney.

Allan Creighton has narrowed his choice down to two: Gingrich and Romney. He says Gingrich's closing argument at the business event did strike a chord with him.

"I think it's a good point he makes — whichever one wins in South Carolina will probably become the Republican nominee," Creighton says.

But when asked if that made his decision for him, he laughs. "No, not completely."

He's not alone. Many South Carolina Republicans are torn. And at this point, unless there is a dramatic shift in the next few days, the non-Romney vote will be divided among Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum and, to a lesser extent, Rick Perry, who trails well behind in recent polls.

Gingrich, who has more events in the state Wednesday, will no doubt keep pitching himself as the only Republican with the heft and credentials to take on the president.

"If I am the Republican nominee, we will run a campaign of paychecks vs. food stamps," Gingrich says. "And we will beat Obama virtually everywhere in this country."

That is a big if, however, because Romney, Santorum, Perry and Paul are not backing down from this fight.

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Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.