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Gingrich, Santorum court South Carolina's conservatives

January 14, 2012|By John Hoeffel
(Matt Rourke / Associated…)

Reporting from Duncan, S.C. — If South Carolina’s conservatives needed any more evidence that they may splinter their vote and help Mitt Romney win a third victory, a GOP fund-raiser and candidate forum here provided it.

Newt Gingrich told dyed-red Republicans from Greenville and Spartanburg counties that this is the most crucial election in their lifetime and they must anoint a conservative to run against President Obama. And so did Santorum.

But interviews with some of the more than 500 people in the vast cafeteria of James F. Byrnes High School suggest that conservatives have not yet tilted heavily toward one over the other. Even the Andersons, who came up from Greenville for the event, split.

Dean Anderson, an 80-year-old  retired advertising executive, said the party needs a candidate who appeals to independents and young voters. “As much as I admire Gingrich,” he said, “I just think that when young people see him on television with gray hair and a little bit pudgy, I don’t think they’re going to be attracted to him enough to vote for him.”  

Wearing a sweater vest in solidarity, Anderson said he backed Santorum, a 53-year-old former senator from Pennsylvania, over the 68-year-old former House speaker. “He’s a strong conservative, a family man. He has the values I believe in, and I think he has the energy to go the distance,” he said.  

Shirley Anderson, a 75-year-old former flight attendant, said that she has always admired Gingrich and dismissed her husband’s contention that he would not have the stamina. “I still feel very positive about him,” she said. “I think we need an experienced person right now. I don’t think he’s a tired old man.”

Gingrich and Santorum spoke one after the other and did not share the stage. They barely mentioned each other, instead drawing contrasts with Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor whose shift to the right has failed to persuade many conservatives that he is one of them.  

Of the two, Gingrich drew louder applause as he marshaled highly detailed historical accounts, referring the audience to a 54-page paper on his website in his answer to the first question. But when he exited the dense thicket of his erudition he repeatedly reached dramatic conclusions that triggered loud applause, such as: “This president is the most anti-constitutional president in the history of the United States.”
 
Gingrich ended with a call for a GOP presidential nominee who is a conservative and can draw a clear contrast with the president. “If we run a moderate who’s in any way close to what Obama is, we’ll lose,” he said. And he said the party needs a candidate who can decisively defeat Obama in debates. “You need somebody who can carry that case so convincingly that they wash away a half billion dollars of advertising,” he said.

And then he turned to the only candidate he thinks can do the job: Newt Gingrich.

Santorum, who wore a suit and tie, not his sweater vest, concluded in a similar fashion, but he left it to the audience to decide that he was the conservative candidate who best matched their values.

“You have been told that your job is to pick someone who can win, to compromise those values that you believe in, to settle for something less, to settle for something that, well, maybe isn’t quite as authentic as your values, maybe isn’t as consistent because we so badly need to win,” he said.

But then he urged the crowd to be bold and to ignore the pressure from establishment Republicans. “People say to candidates running for office, why do you compromise, why do you compromise, why do you compromise on this or that? Why don’t you stand for your principles?” he said, and then, focusing on the audience, he demanded: “Why don’t you stand for your principles?”   

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