POLITICS
01/20/2012 08:38 pm ET Updated Jan 21, 2012

Newt Gingrich Giddy On Eve Of South Carolina Vote

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Newt Gingrich arrived 45 minutes late to his third event of the day Friday, as the political world buzzed with the growing realization that the former House speaker from Georgia looked increasingly likely to defeat Mitt Romney in the presidential primary here on Saturday.

Gingrich's first event of the day had been canceled, because only a few dozen people had shown up to the College of Charleston's basketball arena.

"The campaign and the organizers came to the mutual decision that based on attendance, we would spend more time at the children's hospital," said Gingrich spokesman Nathan Naidu.

As reporters left the building, some ran into former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, a top Romney surrogate who had come to deliver the message that the primary will take all year to resolve. It was essentially an admission that Gingrich was set to win on Saturday.

Gingrich's second event was equally bizarre. Gingrich entered the South Carolina Children's Hospital surrounded by a swarm of TV cameras and assorted press, and led them into a patient's unit.

"It's an emergency department," a doctor said as the crush entered his unit. "We've never had this many people here."

A staffer for the hospital tried to keep the photographers and TV cameras at bay. "Guys, wait, there are patients. There's too many people in here."

After Gingrich finished talking to the doctors, he and his wife Callista came to a playroom in an atrium on an upper floor of the hospital. Callista gingerly walked up on to a raised platform covered with children's toys, accompanied by a man in an elephant costume, to read from her book, "Sweet Land of Liberty," to a few young patients. The book features an elephant named Ellis. Thus the man, a campaign volunteer, in the animal suit.

Even a few feet from Gingrich's wife, her voice was not audible. Gingrich stood off to the side, chatting with more doctors and others around him, and looking up at people looking down from an upper floor at the scene.

"Amazing," he said, beaming and waving to the onlookers.

Finally, more than two hours later and an hour northwest of here, Gingrich had a real political rally, the kind you would expect to see a surging presidential candidate hold the day before an expected big win, though still not nearly as big as the rally for a fake presidential candidate -- comedian Stephen Colbert -- downtown.

Gingrich's campaign events have become much more polished in recent weeks, since five experienced advance staffers came on the day after Christmas to plan all the details and set up the staging for the kind of rallies and meetings that mark a real candidate for president.

The all-important campaign music now plays over loudspeakers when Gingrich takes the stage, and comes on again after he speaks and shakes hands with supporters. Two of the songs are the same country tunes that are played at every Romney rally ("Only In America," by Brooks and Dunn and "American Ride," by Toby Keith), lending a surreal overlap feel for reporters moving back and forth between the two campaigns.

But on Friday, as the crowd of 500 to 600 waited for Gingrich to appear in Orangeburg, the county Republican chairman, Jim Ulmer, struggled to keep the audience entertained.

"People say dead air is bad," Ulmer said nervously over the microphone, then slipped into a stream of consciousness string of stories about the late former Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). He stopped every few minutes to ask, regarding Gingrich, "Is he here yet?"

One of Ulmer's stories about Thurmond ended abruptly with the deceased political legend demanding, "Girl, come in and fill this orange juice glass up."

But for all the awkwardness and lack of polish, voters in the crowd testified that something real, something dynamic, was happening with Gingrich's candidacy, as the latest polls confirmed.

"Everywhere I go people are talking about him. It's been growing throughout the week," said Ron Nester, 65, an attorney who drove 30 minutes from Santee to see Gingrich.

"People want somebody who can take significant action if they become president and is not afraid to go against the established status quo. People are looking for a champion to go against Obama," Nester said.

And once Gingrich arrived, he spoke directly to the hunger that Nester described.

"I am running to fundamentally change the entire structure of power in Washington D.C., to move this country back to the Constitution, back to the Declaration of Independence, back to the principles that have made America historically great," he said to enthusiastic applause.

"So I am happy for the academic left, most of the elite media, and virtually all of the left-wing Democrats to understand: this campaign is about the end of their dominance of the United States and the development of a new center of power called the citizens, in which we take power away from Washington and return it back home. It is that simple," Gingrich said.

After his speech, Gingrich sparred with reporters. He was spirited and sharp-tongued, but looked to be in good spirits. There was not the same edge that marked his confrontation with CNN's John King the night before, when he was asked about his second ex-wife's accusation that he asked her to allow him to have a mistress while remaining married to her.

When asked whether he was angered that King asked him about the issue of an "open marriage" at all, or just because King made it the first question of the debate Thursday night, Gingrich ducked the question but took another opportunity to lecture and bash the media.

"I thought it was grotesque to begin a national presidential debate," Gingrich said. "Massive unemployment, gigantic deficit, highest price of gas in history, Iranians taunting us and planning to close the Strait of Hormuz. I mean go down the list of things that have gone on around the planet, and then look at the first question. You have to say to yourself, 'Is the American news media just totally out of touch with reality?'"

And Gingrich rejected the Romney campaign's calls for him to release the full records of the House Ethics Committee's 1999 investigation of him.

"Don't you love these guys . He doesn't release anything. He doesn't answer anything, and he's even confused about whether or not he will ever release anything, and then they decide to pick a fight over releasing stuff," Gingrich said. " I refuse to take seriously any request from the Romney campaign to disclose anything, because they clearly don't want to disclose anything at any level that involves them."

Gingrich's chief spokesman, R.C. Hammond, was so carried away by the events of the past week that he couldn't resist taking a swipe at one of Romney's top advisers, Stuart Stevens, when talking about the Ethics Committee report.

"This whole idea that they're trying to make that there's this big warehouse somewhere with this stuff is an illusion somewhere in Stuart Stevens' mind, probably created somewhere between the adrenaline of panic of losing the South Carolina primary and realizing that no one else in the party is for his candidate," Hammond crowed.

The Gingrich campaign, scrambling to put together a ramped-up election day schedule for their candidate, scrapped the plan to keep him in Charleston overnight and flew him to the northwest region of the state, where the largest number of conservative voters reside. They released a schedule late Friday that will take Gingrich to five different campaign stops throughout the day before the polls close, clearly pushing to capitalize on their momentum and maximize turnout by virtue of the candidate's presence.

Gingrich summed up his outlook by telling the crowd in Orangeburg: "Tomorrow's going to be a very, very important day."

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