Newt Gingrich speaks at the Faith and Freedom Coalition rally Monday, Jan.… (David Goldman / Associated…)
Reporting from Myrtle Beach, S.C. — In a tent revival-like warm-up before the 16th Republican presidential debate, Newt Gingrich, arriving about the time the event was scheduled to end, made the most pointed argument to a conservative gathering for why he, not Mitt Romney, should be the nominee.
"I want to be very direct for a couple minutes," he said, as the inside of the white tent darkened in the dusk, leaving the former speaker of the House standing in a halo of light. "Unless a conservative wins on Saturday, we're going to end up with a moderate nominee who in my judgment will have a very, very hard time defeating Barack Obama."
Gingrich swiped at President Obama, but aimed most of his barbs at Romney, who still leads in the polls in South Carolina.
"We better have someone who can draw a distinct line against Obamacare and not be confused, somebody who can draw a distinct line in favor of life and not be confused, somebody who actually has believed for more than three or four years what they currently believe and is not confused," he said. "You have to have someone who is tough enough to go toe-to-toe with Barack Obama in the debates and win the debates."
The five remaining candidates made their pre-debate pitches to more than 350 members of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, an organization founded by GOP strategist Ralph Reed. Reed, who headed the Christian Coalition as it rose in prominence in the 1990s, whipped up the crowd, which was not hard to do.
"How y'all doing?" he said, to applause. "Hello, South Carolina! Are you guys ready to begin the process on Saturday of making Barack Obama a one-term president? The eyes of America, the eyes of the world are on South Carolina this week."
Reed said 17 million evangelical Christians nationwide are not registered or otherwise don't vote. He promised to register at least 2 million and build a list of 27 million voters he said would be "pro-life," pro-family and pro-freedom and would be encouraged to vote in swing states. "Unlike the other side, we're not looking for a Messiah. We have a Messiah. His name is Jesus Christ," he said.
Romney, who arrived in jeans because he said he'd been told it was a tent revival, continued to present himself as the near-nominee, ignoring his competitors and focusing most of his remarks on Obama, depicting his first term as a failure.
"He's out of ideas. He's out of excuses. And, in 2012, we're going to prove he's out of time," he said. "In my view, this is the time for America to become stronger and to have someone in the White House, I believe, who understands how to create jobs because he's had a job – and I have."
But the former governor of Massachusetts also tried to reassure the audience, using key phrases that always draw applause, such as asserting that human rights come from God, and touting key positions, such as his support for a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between a man and a woman. He also promised to repeal Obama's healthcare law.
Rick Santorum drew some of the loudest applause when he came out on stage. The sun hit the tent as he started to speak, illuminating it with a golden hue. But the audience was quieter during his speech than when either Gingrich or Ron Paul spoke. Santorum, in a trademark sweater vest with a campaign logo, described himself as one of the most visible point men for the religious right. "We need someone who's not afraid to get shot at," he said.
He argued that South Carolinians would be tossing away one of their biggest issues, Obama's healthcare law, if they nominated Romney, who presided over a similar plan in Massachusetts, and he said he was the only Republican candidate who opposed the Wall Street bailout, a rare moment on the campaign trail when he contrasted himself with the other conservatives.
Paul, the Texas congressman who has some of the most ardent supporters, treated the crowd to a high-speed exhortation of what the Bible says about how to govern, promising an audit of the Federal Reserve, a new monetary system and $1 trillion in spending cuts in his first year as president.
"It's a mess, but going back to our basics should not be difficult," he said, wearing a Mister Rogers sweater that undercut his frequent description of himself as dangerous. "Defend liberty, defend this Constitution, defend American principles, and we can get out of this mess."
Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, whose campaign has never recovered from his faltering debate performances, spoke first, saying that he had promised to ignite the crowd. "I said, get the fire hose out because I'm going put them on fire out there," he said. "You're going to have to wet down the whole crowd. God and country. God and country."
He presented a largely abstract version of America's greatness as a God-fearing nation, speaking about the inspiration he drew from the flag, the founding fathers and his own World War II tailgunner father. "American has lost its spiritual awakening. It has lost its spiritual mooring. It has lost its spiritual way," he said, at one point referring to a passage in the Book of Ecclesiastes. "It is time for people of faith to take this country back."