Persuasive — that's how many South Carolina voters describe GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich.
"I think that's an understatement," Ed Bennett of West Ashley said Monday, after attending a Charleston town hall featuring Gingrich.
While Gingrich has stances on several issues that didn't already jibe with Bennett's beliefs, the White House hopeful was able to explain away many of the differences. Bennett called this "more of a learning process."
Gingrich, who was put in the "left for dead" category in the crowded Republican Party field just two months ago, is soaring in the polls both nationally and locally.
A poll conducted Monday by InsiderAdvantage for the Augusta Chronicle showed Gingrich holding a dominanting lead for the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary. Gingrich's support of 38 percent was more than double former Gov. Mitt Romney's 15 percent and businessman Herman Cain's 13 percent, according to the poll of 519 likely primary voters.
Two months ago, Gingrich was polling in single-digits — and in fifth place.
Gingrich, according to voters Patch talked to in recent days, is winning support by pushing many conservative causes, questioning assumptions and sending a positive message that includes hope for the country.
The candidate is making a big bet on South Carolina, . In addition to the Greenville state headquarters, Gingrich has opened offices in Charleston and Bluffton.
His grassroots efforts are being led by state Rep. Joshua Putnam in the Upstate, former Jon Huntsman state field director DeLinda Ridings in the Midlands, Myrtle Beach Tea Party leader Gerri McDaniel in the Pee Dee and Tea Party veteran Chris Horne in Charleston. Joanne Jones, vice chairwoman for the Charleston Tea Party, is also on board under the leadership of state director Adam Waldeck and policy director Vince Haley.
This week, he's spending three days in the Palmetto State, crossing from Charleston to Greenville.
Unlike other candidates who often repeat stump speeches and talking points again and again at each stop, Gingirch's often-extemporaneous diatribes fail to fit into easy soundbites.
If applause is any indication on what voters are reacting to from the former Speaker, here is a long laundry list of his hits during Monday's town hall in Charleston:
- Defunding the National Labor Relations Board until a new board is seated.
- "The government is subject to you."
- Defunding cities that declare themselves as "sanctuary cities" for illegal immigrants.
- Defending the United States as part of the president's role.
- "Dramatically shrink the Department of Education."
- Students should get the grades they earn and teachers should have the right to discipline unruly children.
- "There's no good bills at page 2,600."
- Citing Obama's debt-forgiveness plan for college students as ineffective.
- "I don't think you can fix (the EPA)."
- "If you don't have common sense, don't apply here (at new Environmental Solutions Agency)."
- "Waterboarding, by every technical rule, is not torture."
- "We're not going to be intimidated in not defending the United States of America by the ACLU."
- Using litigation reform to ebb medical costs.
- Establishing English as the official language of the U.S. government.
- Ensuring immigrants gaining citizenship have "a serious understanding" of U.S. history.
- Making deportation easier and not giving illegal immigrants the same rights as American citizens.
- "There's no illegal worker without an illegal employer."
- "(A 12.5 percent corporate rate) would actually mean that GE would pay taxes."
- Abolishing the "Death Tax."
- Repealing Dodd-Frank.
- Replacing the Food and Drug Administration.
- Putting a sign behind him after the inauguration that reads "America is open for business again."
- Saying Rep. Tim Scott was on his "short list" of running mates.
- "We have no opponents except Barack Obama."
- "We will be back. You ain't seen nothing yet."
Wooing 'traditional' South Carolina voters
It seems voters in the state , which created an attack point from fellow conservatives, and to him as the viable conservative leader in the age of the Tea Party, which scorns political establishment and social agendas in much of the country. The Palmetto State version of the Tea Party .
South Carolina Republicans appear to view his establishment in the Republican Party and his values — which lists to enforce the right for medical professionals to decline medical procedures against their religious beliefs — as assets.
"People in South Carolina are traditional and that's what they want," said College of Charleston freshman Adam DeLoach, who heard Gingrich at the college's recent Bully Pulpit series and Monday at Congressman Tim Scott's First in the South Town Hall series featuring Gingrich in downtown Charleston.
Comments that Gingrich is too entrenched in the establishment or too socially conservative don't come "from the people that do belong to the conservative movement," said Linda Ensor of Summerville, who belongs to the Glenn Beck-inspired 9-12 movement.
"You know who he is," Ensor added. "His skeletons are out of the closet already."
"I don't think it's going to derail him," fellow LowCountry 9.12 member Dana Eiser said.
Gingrich asking voters to 'rethink'
Nearly every answer Gingrich gave during Monday's town hall in Charleston began with asking the audience to "rethink" a foreign or domestic policy or agency — just like he always asks audiences to be "with" him, instead of just "for" him.
Unlike many other candidates who have urged for change , Gingrich called America's current issues "a little bit of a mess." And voters responded.
"It's refreshing; it's hope," Eiser said, adding she liked hearing the positive.
Brent Rutherford, who recently moved to the Columbia rea from Alabama, said he likes Cain, but is leaning more and more heavily to Gingrich each day, he told Patch after a recent event in Columbia.
"I like Cain because he's a straight-shooter. He has a vitality, there's just something there that nobody else has that he does," he said. "Romney is OK. But he bores me. (Texas Gov.) Perry's just like Bush, just dumber. (Minnesota Congresswoman) Bachmann couldn't possibly win; neither could (U.S. Rep.) Ron Paul, even though I agree with a lot he says.
"But I'm coming around to Newt and I'll probably vote for him because he's smart and he's got real ideas," Rutherford continued. "And bottom line, I think, is that Newt is probably the closest of these candidates to being a real, true Reagan conservative. And that's what I want, that's what I want more than anything."
For college freshman DeLoach, seeing Gingrich speak at Monday's sealed his primary vote — taking it away from Romney.
Like Ensor and Eiser, he found Gingrich's focus on the future, rather than the negative, "very uplifting," adding that he had great appeal to the younger demographics of the Republican party.
"It's not just about persuasion. It's about what he has to back it up," DeLoach said.
Strong debate performances leading the way
Columbia-area resident Connie Dierks-Hassler has been one of those voters who has steadily been won over by Gingrich's debate performances.
Many political observers are quick to point out that Gingrich has been able to parlay his debate appearances into higher poll numbers, and the candidate has said so himself.
College of Charleston political science adjunct professor Jeri Cabot also attributed his success to strong debate performances.
But don't discount the failing campaigns of previous challengers to favorite Mitt Romney, Cabot said. The race to be the . But early support for Perry, Bachmann and Cain has failed for reasons ranging from debate gaffes to potential sexual infidelities.
"We're still in the phase of 'anybody but Romney,'" Cabot said, adding the primary is still Romney's to lose. "Romney has done well at every debate, too."
When Dierks-Hassler first began paying attention to the race, she had no clear favorite, but that all changed after about her fourth debate.
"It just seemed clear to me that he had a better grasp of the issues than the others, and he never seemed to really get pulled in to the name-calling," said Dierks-Hassler. "He just seemed to be really sure of himself — and I agreed with him. He's brilliant."
Just as Gingrich's overconfidence has persuaded many voters, some fear that it may be arrogance that dissuades others.
"That part of his personality is something that he may have to work on a little bit," West Ashley voter Bennett said.