Is Newt Gingrich's surge for real?

Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich shakes hands with supporters while standing with his wife Callista Gingrich before speaking at Mutt's Barbeque in Easley, S.C. Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012. Nathan Gray,AP Photo/The Independent-Mail

Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich shakes hands with supporters while standing with his wife Callista Gingrich before speaking at Mutt's Barbeque in Easley, S.C. Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012.
Nathan Gray,AP Photo/The Independent-Mail

Easley, S.C. -- A week ago, a spokesman for Newt Gingrich explicitly outlined his boss's designs for the South Carolina primary: "The goal is to get rid of Romney." 

The strategy was not exactly a secret: Following the Iowa caucuses, in which Gingrich was widely believed to have been brought down by a series of negative ads released by a pro-Romney super PAC, the candidate abandoned his pledge to stay positive and let loose a campaign of freewheeling anti-Romney invective. From the former Massachusetts governor's record as a businessman, to his take on social issues like abortion and gay rights, to the health care bill he signed as governor of Massachusetts, Gingrich has for weeks relentlessly hammered away at Romney in what looked like a last-ditch effort to regain some momentum.

"My conclusion after Iowa was very simple - you could not engage in unilateral disarmament when 45 percent of all the ads being run were attacks on me," Gingrich said earlier this month, by way of explanation for the apparent flip-flop of his own.

Many dismissed the candidate's attempts as something of a kamikaze mission aimed at taking down his rival; the outside assumption was that Gingrich, like many Republican presidential contenders before him this cycle, had benefited from a brief surge but had been unable to withstand scrutiny when put under the microscope.

But now there's evidence to suggest that Gingrich is closing in on Romney again. Thursday morning, CBS News confirmed Perry would be dropping out of the race and he is expected endorse Gingrich just as several new polls out of the Palmetto state showed the candidate with a discernible bump following his performance in Monday's presidential debate.

A CNN/Time/ORC International poll released Wednesday shows Romney with 33 percent support and Gingrich with 23 percent. (Two weeks ago, Romney's lead was 19 points.) What's more, the poll was conducted in the days leading up to but not following Monday's debate -- which means the race may be even closer than those numbers reflect.

Similarly, in a new NBC/Marist poll conducted Monday and Tuesday, Gingrich cut Romney's 20 point lead from two weeks ago in half, earning 24 percent to Romney's 34 percent. A poll out this morning from Politico shows the contest even closer, with Romney leading Gingrich 37 percent to 30 percent. 

Perry received 4 percent in the NBC and Politico polls, which could also lead to a boost for Gingrich.

"If you look at your own poll, I'm clearly now within five points of beating Romney" in South Carolina," Gingrich told NBC's "Today" show in a Thursday interview.

Meanwhile, the final tally from January 3's Iowa caucuses has revealed that, technically, Romney was edged out by Rick Santorum in the state by a handful of votes -- which means his Iowa-New Hampshire one-two punch has slightly less resonance going into South Carolina. 

At a campaign stop in Easley, S.C., on Wednesday, Gingrich was buoyant before a packed house at Mutt's BBQ; the crowd, about 250 strong, cheered as the candidate touted his ideas, jeered at President Obama, and promised not to be your typical "boring" Republican. Outside, 150 more people who weren't able to get in waited to catch a glimpse of Gingrich as he exited.

"I didn't come here to ask you to vote for me," Gingrich told voters during his remarks. "I came here to ask you to be with me for eight years."

"Please get across to all your friends and neighbors, without saying anything negative about Rick Perry and Rick Santorum, the fact is, if you look at the polls tonight and tomorrow, there is one candidate who can give you a conservative nominee, and only one candidate who can stop Mitt Romney, and a vote for anyone else is a vote that allows Mitt Romney to potentially be our nominee," he said, referring to himself. "And I think having a Massachusetts moderate would in fact be a very, very weak hand going in, and would be a really disappointing hand trying to govern."

Scott Buchanan, Executive Director of the Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics, says that at this point Gingrich is indeed the likeliest option to take down Romney, although it's still an uphill battle.

"If anybody could do it it would be Newt Gingrich, I would think," he said. "According to most of the people watching the debate, he did better than anybody else did. If he follows that with a similar performance, he might come close to Romney. But if you got a double-digit lead five days in from the primaries, you gotta convince a lot of people to change their minds."

At a rally for Romney in Irmo, S.C., on Wednesday, voters were predicting a close battle between Romney and his latest rival.

"I think it's gonna be a very, very tight race," said Michael Elsey, a soft-spoken local Republican who had stopped by Seven Oaks Park in Irmo to see Mitt Romney speak. Elsey said he was still deciding between the two candidates; he admired Romney's "financial mind" but was also impressed by Gingrich's intelligence and debating skills.

At the Gingrich event in Easley, voters' concerns about both of the candidates seemed apt reflections of the national temperature.

Anthony Roper, a gregarious, mustachioed construction worker from the area said he was being "pulled towards Newt" in large part because of his "backbone."

"I like his stance," Roper said. "He's got a backbone."

Roper, like many members in the Gingrich audience, said he was worried Romney wasn't "in touch with the base of the Republican party."

"I'm struggling with that," he said. "I'm just not sure about where he's gonna be. if the climate changes, I want somebody who's got a backbone. I want someone who's gonna do what they said. We've already had four years of seeing somebody who doesn't do what they said they're gonna do just to get elected. I don't need four more years of a Republican Obama."

Gingrich, Roper said, was genuine.

"He says what's on his mind, he at least has an opinion whether you like it or not, he doesn't change," he said. "That is very important to me. That's what i like about Newt. He is who he is."

Overall, both Gingrich and Romney supporters seemed willing to forgive their favored candidates' checkered pasts - be it regarding personal history, as with Gingrich, or flip-flopping, with Romney.

"We all have baggage," said Pam, a nurse from Easley who home-schooled four children. (She wasn't  the only one in the crowd: one group of five home-schooled children also showed up to the event as an assignment for their government class.) "I think [Gingrich] has learned from his mistakes and I think he's all the wiser for them."

Still, some people may not be so inclined to forgive and forget if presented with yet more of the so-called baggage surrounding the candidate's past. And ABC News has reportedly done an interview with Gingrich's ex-wife, with whom he no longer has a relationship, which could prove a disastrous setback to any momentum the candidate may have gained. The interview is expected to be released on Thursday.

Gingrich had his two daughters write a letter to ABC complaining about the broadcast, but declined to say anything about his ex.

"I'm not going to say anything bad about Marianne," Gingrich said on "Today."

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