NOWist Jimmy Williams is an msnbc Contributor and former Senate staffer
Stuck in the Minneapolis airport yesterday, I punched out a post on how Rick Santorum (and tangentially Rick Perry) were going to deny Newt Gingrich a badly-needed win in my home state of South Carolina. Then all hell broke loose this morning with Perry dropping out and endorsing Gingrich. Add ABC's bombshell tease of Gingrich's second wife, Marianne, declaring on national tv that Newt wanted to have his cake and eat it too by having an "open marriage" with both her and his mistress-now-wife Callista. That's a lot of fireworks for a Thursday morning so let's clear the smoke away from these incendiary political bombs and look at what's happening down in the Palmetto state over the next 48 hours.
Governor Perry finally saw the writing on the wall and ended his embarrassing and poorly-run campaign. He reminds me of those on-line dating websites where they guy's literally perfect on paper and looks great but when you meet him in person, you can't wait to get the check and leave. With Perry's exit, we have to wonder whether his endorsement of Gingrich will translate into his SC primary votes. Gingrich is running a strong second down in Dixie and closing in on Mitt Romney and today's NBC/Marist poll shows him only five points behind. But wait not so fast.
ABC will air tonight the two-hour interview with the former Mrs. Gingrich Number Two. Today's AM tease of the interview contains the remarkable bombshell the Gingrich campaign knew was coming. And in true SC style, we always save the best (meaning the dirtiest) stuff for the end. While this revelation may be a bombshell, the conventional wisdom doesn't hold water. There isn't a single person in politics that thinks the Tea Party movement contingent down in SC will ever vote for Romney. It's simply anathema to them to vote for the former "progressive" governor of Massachusetts. So in the end, the Perry voters have to make a choice: do they go with the man who's had three wives and can possibly beat President Barack Obama or do they swing those votes to the man that won Iowa and holds their values closer to their hearts? To answer these questions, we have to look at how South Carolina voters think, especially conservatives.
"Intruding into family things"?Yesterday, Gingrich said he didn't think "intruding into family things" was proper for a political campaign and his two daughters have now sent a letter to the president of ABC asking him not to run the interview. This is a man that impeached former President Bill Clinton over lying about "a family thing" i.e. his extramarital affair with Monica Lewinsky. This is a man that thinks gay men and women across the country shouldn't have the same equal rights as he does and frankly as a gay man, I'm offended I can't get married (three times) yet he can. An overwhelming number of South Carolina voters are self-professed Christians and believe strongly in the redemption of the sinner. Remember that whole sinner, stones, glass houses metaphor? It works down there. But here's the rub in the Palmetto state. We don't like hypocrites and most certainly don't like serial hypocrites either. And on this issue, Newt Gingrich's hypocrisy goes unmatched. That's not lost on South Carolinians, especially moderate to conservative women who will decide this primary race. In the end though, I don't think it's a deal breaker and here's why.
This issue of electability is what most voters are focusing on back home. No one thinks Santorum can beat Barack Obama. So Perry's SC voters aren't going in mass to a man that's polling at 10 percent. Remember, these are conservatives and many of them are self-professed Tea Partiers so they're probably not going for Romney. Ron Paul (TX) followers tend to be younger and for the most part don't care about social issues. So if you do the simple math, that leaves one candidate that A) South Carolinians can identify with on a personal basis and B) South Carolinians can find room in their hearts to forgive for his transgressions: the honorable Newt Gingrich.
Gingrich's hubris is unmatched and it may be his downfall in his bid for the presidency. But for the purposes of this column, we can only focus on what happens in the next 48 hours. If (and that's a big if) tonight's interview w/ Marianne Gingrich doesn't produce anymore bombshells, SC voters will have to do a lot of soul searching (that's called hardcore praying down there) between now and Saturday. Can they forgive the man if these "family things" are true? Can they identify with Newt Gingrich? Will they like his persistent and disgusting race-baiting (food stamps and making kids janitors)? My South Carolina gut tells me they will forgive him and they like his comments on food stamps et al.
My South Carolina gut also tells me my people don't like Mitt Romney. Actually, everyone I talk to back home can't stand the guy. One of my cousins told me "Romney is so perfect that he looks like he's carved out of cream cheese and we don't eat cream cheese down here." As I said on NOW with Alex Wagner on Monday, it's a "possibility" Romney could eke out a win in South Carolina but only because a majority of voters think he is the only person who can beat President Obama. But South Carolinians like genuine people. We don't like fakes, we don't like flip-floppers, and we don't like frauds. Believe it or not, that whole Carpetbagger skepticism lives and breathes down there. We'd rather put in a sinner who admits his problems and deals with them in a meaningful way than a candidate like Mitt Romney who A) the Tea Partiers don't like and B) has virtually nothing in common with a middle class family living in Florence, South Carolina.
The next 48 hours will be telling but in the end, Gingrich has the momentum and barring any further last minute bombs, he could win giving him the fundraising ability to go into Florida and give Romney a decent run down there.