Greenville, S.C. – Bolstered by his rising poll numbers and looking ahead to that night’s foreign policy debate, Newt Gingrich opened his first South Carolina campaign office with wife, Callista, at his side on Saturday. As he rises to compete in the top tier of GOP hopefuls, voters are taking a closer look, and conservatives in the state with the first in the South primary are no exception.
As Gingrich tries to create a new narrative that avoids mention of past contentious battles as House Speaker and an ethics reprimand, he is hampered by present-day investigations of his work as a consultant for the government-sponsored mortgage company Freddie Mac and the fees he received. Even the “new” Newt has no problem labeling President Obama a “food stamp” president, though he does it with a smile.
How long will Gingrich’s surge as the anti-Romney last as opponents – both in an out of his party – take a closer look at the man and his record? The mix of about 150 longtime followers and newcomers to his message in Greenville wanted to hear more and were curious about Callista, the less loquacious member of Team Gingrich.
Gingrich hit his familiar talking points and laugh lines, and repeated his soft-spoken, hard-hitting attacks on President Obama, exuding trademark self-confidence (an overabundance, some would and have said). He again called for a series of Lincoln-Douglas style debates with the president and managed a few mentions of his-and-her books and joint documentary projects.
All the while, Callista Gingrich smiled, nodded and applauded. “She’s his glue,” spokesman R.C. Hammond had told me a few minutes earlier, when he also said she wouldn’t be doing interviews.
What part does will Callista play in a ramped-up campaign? It’s a question that has been asked before. Newt Gingrich was happy to explain. “We campaign together,” he said to the crowd. “We just like hanging out together. We are a team.”
“I would say, and I don’t want to put words in Callista’s mouth, but first of all she’s here. She’s going to campaign. She has a terrific speech on American exceptionalism. She’s actually a better personal campaigner than I am.” Gingrich said, “Probably Nancy and Ronnie Reagan are the closest analogy I know of in terms of how we work together.”
At one point, he turned and offered her the microphone, trying to coax a comment. “Do you want to talk about this at all?” he asked. “You’re doing it very well,” she answered.
The would-be candidate’s wife seemed more comfortable one-on-one, casually chatting and holding the occasional toddler in after-speech photos. “My name is Callista; it’s nice to meet you,” she greeted everyone with a smile. That was enough for many who were nonetheless impressed, intrigued in part by the mystery of Gingrich’s other half, who wore a chic dark outfit and pearls.
“I don’t know anything much about her,” said a woman who hadn’t quite picked her favorite candidate. “She’s supporting her husband. That’s important.”
Shery Smith, a campaign volunteer from Sumter, S.C., there to sign up more, came aboard just two weeks ago, convinced by Gingrich’s conservative views on issues such as health care. The tea party activist said, “Up until then, I had been riding the fence between him and Herman Cain.” Recent accusations of sexual harassment against Cain had nothing to do with her choice, she said. “I’d have to see more proof.” She said that such charges or reminders of Gingrich’s three marriages are par for the course in tough campaigns. But “that was a long time ago,” she said. “We’re not here to judge; if Jesus can forgive, who am I not to.”
Forgiveness is an important part of the Christianity that without apology informs the political views of many in South Carolina, where in the 2008 presidential primary campaign, the president of a college that requires faculty to be practicing Christians bestowed his blessing and support on Mike and Janet Huckabee.
Delinda Ridings, the Midlands regional director for Newt 2012, was new to the campaign staff; she had been working for months for Jon Huntsman. She still has “great respect” for the former Utah governor, she said, but the day he tweeted out that “he believed in evolution and global warming,” she started to waver. Ridings said she still supported Huntsman’s fiscal conservatism, but wondered how she was going to sell his candidacy around the state. When the Gingrich campaign came to her, Ridings, the daughter of a retired Baptist minister, said, “I prayed about it.” Now she sees the Greenville office as just the first, with ones in Myrtle Beach and Columbia to come. “He’s the smartest man on the panel,” she said. And his wife? “I think she’s gorgeous,” said Ridings. “We’re both blondes,” she joked.
In South Carolina, it helped that Gingrich was surrounded by family, including Jackie Cushman, who shares her first name with her mother, Gingrich’s first wife. Cushman, a conservative author and speaker, recalled working on her father’s campaigns since she was 7, “helping out wherever I can.” Her young son, Robert, roaming the Greenville headquarters, looked to follow that example. Her mother, a cancer survivor, “is doing great,” she said. “She’s amazing.” Gingrich has always been “a great dad.” Though “it’s always tough” when parents divorce, Cushman said everyone gets along. “We’re a fun family.”
Friends had brought 89-year-old Claylia Evans from Charlotte, N.C., to meet Newt Gingrich. She has been a fan all her life, and said that when she lived in Lubbock, Texas, she used to tape his congressional speeches off C-SPAN and send them to friends. She said she “doesn’t know why people think he’s mean.” That was just before Gingrich divided America into two camps: “If you believe your rights come from your creator, we’d like you to join us. If you believe we’re a secular society that has no relationship to God, you should be with Obama. If you believe that you ought to have a paycheck, then you should join us. If you’re comfortable depending on the government for food stamps, you should be with Barack Obama.”
Evans dismissed any tales about Newt Gingrich’s personal life, past wives or jewelry bills as “a personal matter.” She had just met Callista Gingrich and was a little in awe. “Isn’t she beautiful?” she asked. “She’s always so perfect and never has a hair string out of place.” Evans told me that when she shared that sentiment with her, Callista Gingrich smiled.