When I first arrived in South Carolina last week, I expected to hear voters complaining about Newt Gingrich’s harsh attacks against Mitt Romney’s business practices at Bain Capital. After all, it seemed contrary to the free market capitalism championed by Republicans. (As Romney put it in his concession speech tonight: “Those who pick up the weapons of the left today will find them used against them tomorrow.”) But what I heard from voters was the opposite — and helps explain how Gingrich beat Romney soundly in the state.
Turns out, it wasn’t so much the content of Gingrich’s harsh attacks that got their attention, it was their very harshness. After losing hard in Iowa where he had pledged to be positive, Gingrich came out swinging. And rather than be defensive in the wake of his ex-wife Marianne’s interview about his infidelity, Gingrich went on the offense and attacked the media for raising the question in the presidential debate. That played well with voters spoiling for a fight — with Obama, with Washington, with the media.
“People around here are more Newtish,” Republican voter, Ida Martin, a 58-year-old bed and breakfast owner, told me at a conservative event in Myrtle Beach. “They like Newt’s wording, how he stands up and has more fire in his belly. Mitt is more reserved. Santorum is a nice person. But Newt is a rebel.”
A rebel who sold himself as a bruiser who would take the fight to Obama and to the Washington establishment: “We need someone strong enough, bold enough, and tough enough, first to go head-to-head with Obama this fall and win the debates and therefore win the election. Second, to go head to head with Washington,” Gingrich repeatedly told South Carolina audiences.
He arrived at campaign events with “Eye of the Tiger,” the theme-song from Rocky blaring from the speakers. He pledged to be a street fighter, on the campaign trail and in office. Gingrich vowed that if he’s the republican nominee, he will stalk Obama around the country and deliver in-person rebuttals to his every campaign speech – until the president agrees to do a series of seven debates with him for three hours. “Wherever he goes, I will show up four hours later – until they decide a debate is less painful,” he said.
He’s also promised, for example, to bring the same approach to foreign policy. “If you look weak and timid, you increase the chances (of Iran developing a nuclear weapon) because you make them believe their aggressiveness is paying off,” he said.
Whether Newtmania can take hold in the less friendly terrain of Florida before January 31 remains to be seen. But for now: En garde!