COLUMBIA, South Carolina (Reuters) - In the heart of the Bible Belt, Newt Gingrich, the winner of Saturday’s South Carolina primary, evoked comparisons to a familiar scriptural tale: Lazarus, the man who rose from the dead.
Only a week ago, many pundits had written off Gingrich’s chances in South Carolina, with Mitt Romney carrying a sizeable lead in early polling and Rick Santorum winning endorsements from influential evangelicals. Gingrich’s miraculous turnaround in the campaign’s final days shocked many political observers who doubted that he could overcome his negatives.
“Make no mistake about it - this was a landslide victory,” Billy Wilkins, Gingrich’s South Carolina co-chair, said at a boisterous victory celebration. “This was the political version of a tsunami.”
Gingrich, known for his pugnacious performances, appeared to have no prepared speech as supporters gathered to cheer him on. In a rambling 22-minute talk, he aimed his venom at President Barack Obama and suggested that “people power” rather than money was key to his South Carolina upset.
From the start of the campaign, Gingrich was seen as a longshot - a former House speaker who resigned in 1999 after an ethics investigation, carrying carried the personal baggage of two marriages that ended with charges of infidelity.
As his campaign got under way, he was criticized for opulent tastes with disclosures of his sizeable lines of credit at Tiffany’s, the luxury jeweler. He and his third wife, Callista, embarked on a Greek cruise in the spring when some of his staff believed he should be focused on the campaign trail.
In June, frustrated with their candidate’s lack of focus, top staffers abandoned Gingrich’s ship. Many defected for Texas Governor Rick Perry’s nascent campaign. On Thursday, Perry quit the race and endorsed Gingrich.
As the campaign intensified, the Gingrich team sputtered. He soared in the early Iowa polls but in January finished a disappointing fourth place in the state’s caucuses. He blamed a barrage of negative advertisements for his poor standing. A so-called Super PAC, aligned with Romney spent $2.7 million in Iowa, much of it to attack Gingrich.
New Hampshire brought another fourth place finish. Gingrich hobbled into South Carolina with many saying that Romney, endorsed by the state’s Tea Party governor Nikki Haley, had the contest sewn up.
Gingrich also was losing ground to Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator once seen as lacking presidential timber. Santorum got a second look after pulling off a victory in Iowa.
Major pastors gathered in Texas last week and declared Santorum their preferred candidate. And Santorum focused his South Carolina campaigning on the upstate, with its strong evangelical base.
Gingrich also witnessed blowback from conservative leaders over his attacks on Romney’s record as a former executive of Bain Capital, a venture capital firm. Some of those attacks were turned into advertisements financed by a $5 million donation from Sheldon Adelson, a billionaire casino executive.
Gingrich’s rapid turnaround came this week with the Perry endorsement and two forceful debate performances. He scored points by releasing a year of his income tax returns, highlighting Romney’s reticence to face questions about his personal finances.
Gingrich even managed to avoid damage when his second wife, Marianne Gingrich, went on network television to accuse him of seeking an open marriage before their divorce.
Questioned about her charges during a debate, Gingrich lashed out at the questioner, debate moderator, John King of CNN. In doing so, he won applause from conservatives here, who view the national news media with skepticism.
In exit polls, 64 percent of South Carolina voters said the debates were an important factor in their decision.
Now, some voters think Gingrich has proven he has the ferocity to go head-to-head with Obama. At an earlier debate, he won a standing ovation when he called Obama the “food stamp president.” He repeated the theme during his victory remarks.
“Newt Gingrich is the only one who can debate Barack Hussein Obama,” said Jo Hendrix, 61, who voted for Gingrich in Lexington County Saturday.
Hendrix said that Gingrich’s personal foibles did not stop her from voting for him.
“Everybody makes mistakes,” she said.
Some supporters said Gingrich’s spunky fighting spirit called to mind a South Carolina legend — former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Frazier, who hailed from the South Carolina “low country.”
“Newt’s our Smokin’ Joe Frazier,” said Ed Cheek, 62.
Reporting By Samuel P. Jacobs; Reporting By Sam Youngman; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Bill Trott