Newt Gingrich allies in South Carolina and Florida smell victory

Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s outstanding debate performance on Monday and key endorsements could set the stage for a strong showing by Gingrich in Saturday’s South Carolina primary, which would position him for a possible win in the Florida primary on Jan. 31 and a chance at the Republican nomination for President this summer.

That’s what the two former Republican U.S. Representatives who are chairing Gingrich’s campaign in those two key states told HUMAN EVENTS yesterday.  Following what even Gingrich’s enemies say was a virtuoso performance in the debate at Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Monday evening, former Reps. John Napier (S.C.) and Bill McCollum (Fla.) spelled out how a long-term Gingrich “game plan” could emerge from the primaries in their respective states.

“If Newt runs strong in South Carolina, that will mean he overcame a tremendous barrage of negative politics and it did not cement,” said Napier, who spoke to us as the Gingrich campaign began running fresh ads featuring clips of his best lines in the Monday night debate.  A just-completed Rasmussen Poll showed that among likely GOP primary voters in the Palmetto State, Mitt Romney had 35 percent, Gingrich 21 percent, and Ron Paul and Rick Santorum were tied with 16 percent each.

Another sign that Gingrich may be showing sudden momentum in South Carolina is his endorsement Monday from Lieutenant Governor Ken Ard — a break from his fellow GOPer, Gov. Nikki Haley, who came out early for Romney.  In addition, one of the state’s most influential and respected evangelical leaders, Dr. Bill Monroe of the Florence Baptist Temple, was set to endorse Gingrich.

Napier would not say precisely what he meant by his man running “strong” Saturday, but Florida’s McCollum said that if Gingrich “came in second, that would be great” and would put him in a position to do very well and possibly win in the Sunshine State January 3rd.  In his words, “if Newt wins Saturday — and that’s not beyond the pale — great.  If he’s second, that’s great, too.  And if he is in a tight fight with Santorum for third, that’s not bad either.”

McCollum did say that his vision of a Gingrich triumph in Florida “will not work if he falls way down in South Carolina.”

As large as Florida is and as expensive as its media markets are, McCollum noted that the Georgian has an experienced and enthusiastic team of supporters who are well-equipped to take advantage of a strong showing by their candidate in South Carolina.  Jose Mallea, campaign manager for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in 2010, is the full-time campaign manager for Gingrich in Florida and, with the backing of former State Party Vice Chairman Debby Cox-Roush, “Newt has chairmen in all 67 counties here and eight campaign headquarters throughout the state.  In fact, in Jacksonville, I’m going to open the ninth headquarters tomorrow.”

Like Napier, McCollum addressed the question of whether Gingrich can appeal to evangelical conservatives and “values voters.”  In his words, “we have an excellent faith-based coalition co-chaired by former State Rep. Kurt Kelly and State Sen. John Grant, both respected leaders in that community.  Another respected leader in that community, Matt Staver of Liberty Council, is on board with Newt in a big way.”

Napier and McCollum addressed the issue of whether “Team Gingrich” can organize nationwide.  Where Napier noted that in South Carolina Gingrich support has mushroomed almost overnight from his debate showing, McCollum told us how much of the Gingrich organization in Florida “has come together only since December.  And our volunteers hold ‘viewing parties’ to watch the debates and after each party, there are more volunteers.”

Both Napier and McCollum came to the U.S. House when Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1980 and both quickly became close friends and political allies of Gingrich (who was elected in ’78).  Napier went on to be a judge of the  U.S. Court of Claims, and McCollum was twice elected attorney general of his state and ran for governor and U.S. Senator.  Now both are the former speaker’s critical allies, as the primaries in South Carolina and Florida may well determine whether Gingrich has a “game plan” that goes into “Super Tuesday” and beyond.