MS. IFILL: From the low country to the Piedmont, South Carolina has become the next great test in the Republican primary race. Will Romney win? Can Gingrich catch up? We’ll fill you in tonight on a special Palmetto State addition of “Washington Week.”
FORMER SPEAKER NEWT GINGRICH (R-GA): I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office.
FORMER MASSACHUSETTS GOVERNOR MITT ROMNEY (R): Let’s get on to the real issues is all I got to say.
MS. IFILL: To almost everyone’s surprise, South Carolina has become a race to the finish. Two candidates out in four days.
FORMER UTAH GOVERNOR JON HUNTSMAN (R): I believe it is now time for our party to unite around the candidate best equipped to defeat Barack Obama. I believe that candidate is Governor Mitt Romney.
TEXAS GOVERNOR RICK PERRY (R): Today, I am suspending my campaign and endorsing Newt Gingrich for president of the United States.
MS. IFILL: Newt Gingrich coming on strong while Ron Paul and Rick Santorum still attract big crowds.
FORMER SENATOR RICK SANTORUM (R-PA): This idea of the inevitability of Mitt Romney as a candidate, well isn’t going to look so inevitable.
REPRESENTATIVE RON PAUL (R-TX): The campaign has been doing very, very well, but that doesn’t mean things can’t change.
MS. IFILL: Forcing frontrunner Mitt Romney to fight to hold on to his lead.
MR. ROMNEY: This campaign is not just about replacing one person as president. This campaign is about taking back America and restoring American values. And I’ll do that.
MS. IFILL: It may all end here or it may not. Covering the week in South Carolina: Charles Babington of the Associated Press, Karen Tumulty of the “Washington Post,” Sam Youngman of Reuters, and Jeff Zeleny of the “New York Times.”
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, this is a special Campaign 2012 edition of “Washington Week” with Gwen Ifill, produced in association with “National Journal.”
ANNOUNCER: Once again, from Columbia, South Carolina, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Thanks, South Carolina, for giving us one of the wackiest weeks of the campaign. Jon Huntsman came to South Carolina, then he left. Rick Perry came to South Carolina, and he left. Rick Santorum, who lost in Iowa, seems now to have won there. And Newt Gingrich, who finished out of the top tier in both Iowa and New Hampshire is staging a remarkable comeback. I spoke to him yesterday on his campaign bus about the final 48 hours.
(Begin video segment.)
MS. IFILL: If Mitt Romney wins on Saturday, you stand by your statement that if he wins in South Carolina, the Republicans will nominate a moderate who will lose to Barack Obama in the fall?
MR. GINGRICH: I think it gets a little harder to stop him, although as Karl Rove pointed two days ago, he’s not doing well enough to be very convincing. And if you add the conservative vote together between Santorum and me, we would beat Romney by 60-40. So my job – if Rick stays in the race, my job is to get his voters to decide if they want to help beat Romney, which means they vote for me.
(End video segment.)
MS. IFILL: This was Santorum’s pushback later that night.
MR. SANTORUM: Grandiosity has never been a problem with Newt Gingrich. He handles it very, very well. (Applause.) A month ago, he was saying that, oh, I’m – it’s inevitable, that I’m going to win the election and it’s I’m destined to do it. I don’t want a nominee that I have to worry about going out and looking at the paper the next day and figuring out what is he – worrying about what he’s going to say next. And that’s what I think we’re seeing here.
MS. IFILL: That was just a tip of the iceberg, when it comes to the fights we’ve been seeing here this week, Karen. It’s been amazing.
MS. TUMULTY: It has and it’s been all the more amazing. If you think about the role that South Carolina has traditionally played, it has always been -- whoever the establishment candidate is, it’s always been his firewall. It’s been where he steps on the insurgents and goes on to win the nomination. Now, it looks like we actually have the possibility where it looked like Mitt Romney was just going to cruise to this nomination that, you know, this could be in fact where his opposition gets a little bit of oxygen.
MS. IFILL: Does Mitt Romney, Jeff, know that this is closing, that Newt Gingrich is closing in on him like this?
MR. ZELENY: He definitely does and you can see it in his own language and hear it in his own language. But we’ve been able to see it for several days. Just talking to voters at his own rallies, you don’t get much energy, enthusiasm, and even the size of crowds at his rallies. The morning after the first debate of this week, in Florence, he had a big – a civic center in downtown Florence. It’s a big ball room, which was made smaller, like most campaigns do, so it looks like it’s crowded. Even that didn’t work. There was – it was such a small audience. The Romney aides were literally embarrassed by it. And that was a sign that he really does not have this enthusiasm. So they know that there are problems here.
Right now they are trying to sort of spin all of us ahead to his advantages in Florida and elsewhere, but we want to be planted right here in South Carolina because this is where we’re going to learn a lot about him as a candidate, and we’ve seen some things. He struggled this week right in front of our eyes in debates, in tax returns, in all kinds of things that haven’t yet happened. So it’s been a great stretch here and an interesting day to come.
MS. IFILL: Chuck, why is it that Mitt Romney seemed so off his game and now has someone breathing down his back so severely, when it felt like we were coronating him when we left New Hampshire not that long ago.
MR. BABINGTON: Right, Gwen. I mean, really the whole story of this primary for some time has been will there be one person that the conservative voters who don’t like Romney could unite behind. And as we know, it’s taken – it still hasn’t fully played out, but it’s been such a long and slow winnowing process that has played very much to Mitt Romney’s advantage. Maybe we’re seeing it finally starting to really narrow down fast with Newt Gingrich, but you still have Santorum in it.
Perry did drop out, and that’s to Gingrich’s advantage. Romney has known all along that this might happen, as Jeff said. It seems like maybe it’s going to happen faster and he wants to get ahead of it by lowering expectations here. He still has some good things to look forward to down the road if he doesn’t win here. But as Karen said, this is a state that usually goes with the winner.
MS. IFILL: But Sam, if you go to turn on your television, turn on your radio, go to his rallies, it’s not like he’s taking it lying down. Mitt Romney in person and at these debates is being very genteel about this, but on the air and under the radar, he’s pushing back pretty hard.
MR. YOUNGMAN: Which is how they do it here in South Carolina. I mean it’s – you know it’s a state where you find out as much about the gaffe from the flyer on your car as you do from what his opponents actually saying.
Look, Mitt Romney is in the political fight of his life right now. He is – things are – to quote Gallup today – “are collapsing” for him nationally. He’s struggling here. So it’s interesting to see. Unlike Jeff, I’ve really been intrigued by how he handles this kind of adversity. I was surprised to hear him say last night during – refer to it as Romneycare during the debate last night. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard that before. It’s interesting to see him flustered, and we’ll see, I guess, if he’s got the guns to shoot back and slow down Newt.
MS. TUMULTY: I think it’s worth pointing out here, though, that I certainly cannot think of any nominee of either party that I’ve ever covered who has not had at least one near death experience –
MS. IFILL: Right.
MS. TUMULTY: – when – in between Iowa and the convention.
MS. IFILL: In fact, one of the most amazing things about this March is that it had seemed so inevitable so soon, and in fact there were only two rounds of voting. But let’s talk about Newt Gingrich because this wasn’t just that Mitt Romney appears to be collapsing, it’s that Newt Gingrich became the anti-Romney, which we kept casting about for. How do they do that?
MR. ZELENY: I think one of the reasons he did that or one of the ways he was able to do that is he’s improved as a candidate as well. His demeanor is much more upbeat. He’s not scowling like he was a few weeks ago. And in particular, he changed his message. He wasn’t on the perhaps right message at the beginning of South Carolina. He was attacking how Governor Romney made his money, saying that he presided over job loss and other things. He was just criticized by all kinds of conservatives. So he abruptly just flipped that aside and went on to other things.
But I think that Newt Gingrich is also benefiting here from the fact that he is from Georgia. Actually, he’s from Pennsylvania, but he represented the neighboring state here. But I think he is just – it’s not so much that people want to like Newt Gingrich or see him as president, but I think some of them want this race to go on a little bit longer. They want to see Romney be put in the fire a little bit and why not vote for him.
MS. IFILL: Yes, that’s what Sarah Palin said, right?
MR. ZELENY: Right.
MR. YOUNGMAN: And the other thing I would say is, as Jeff said, he went away from the attacks on Bain Capital because most Republicans just said, hey, that is out of bounds. You sound like a Democrat or you sound like the Occupy crowd. We can’t have that. And he focused on tax returns. He found one area. He found Mitt Romney’s Achilles’ heel, his tax returns. And I don’t know that he could have guessed that Romney would have so much trouble responding to this line of attack, but it’s worked. And he’s been hammering him on it every single day. And his poll numbers have reflected that.
MS. TUMULTY: And he got an assist from his new endorser, Rick Perry, too. It was really in the Monday night debate, when Rick Perry was still a candidate; I think that he was the first person to really sort of get quite literally in Mitt Romney’s face on this.
MS. IFILL: You know the other thing that Rick Perry did, after dropping out and endorsing Newt Gingrich, he was only getting about 5 percent of the polls, so it’s unclear whether that all – all went to Newt Gingrich, but what he did is he also defended Newt Gingrich against his baggage, that word which keeps coming back, his three marriages, the dubious situations in which his marriages ended, his ex-wife coming out this week and saying, you know, he wanted an open marriage. Gingrich says that’s not true. But he used it – I think Rick Perry used evangelical language to say, you know, we’re all forgiving. And Gingrich used it to turn the tables on our colleague John King at the CNN debate last night and say it’s you, the evil media, that’s keeping the story going.
MR. BABINGTON: Gwen, I spent a couple of days this week up in the Greenville, Spartanburg area, which has a lot of religious conservatives. It’s home to Bob Jones University, a lot of evangelicals I talked to. I went to a big prayer session. I went to a big anti-abortion gathering. And I talked to a lot of people. And I was really struck by how little enthusiasm there was for any candidate. Every one of these people I talked to said they were a Republican. They planned to vote Saturday. They certainly don’t like Barack Obama. They don’t like Mitt Romney, but when you press them, almost none of them were really decided at that point. Most of them were between Santorum and Gingrich.
But I really was struck by how little enthusiasm – these folks are not set on fire. They’re despondent. They feel very bad about the direction the country’s going in. So I don’t really know what that says about the level of support for Gingrich. It might help him – he might get their vote. It might be a reluctant vote, but there’s something going on that these folks are not on fire.
MS. IFILL: Why don’t those voters go to Rick Santorum?
MR. ZELENY: I think a lot of people are sort of warming to Senator Santorum. He had, I thought a very strong debate performance on Thursday night. He really outlined the Bill of Particulars against Speaker Gingrich that a lot of people would agree with, just in terms of the history of what happened when he was speaker of the House. But you hear over and over and over, either interviewing voters who are on talk radio that I like Rick Santorum, but I’m not sure that he is big enough to run for president or he sort of has the muscle here. And that’s what Newt Gingrich argued last night. He embraced the Santorum – suggested that he has grandiose views. He’s like you know what, I do have grandiose views and he basically called him too small to be president. So –
MS. IFILL: I don’t think Santorum saw that coming. When you call someone grandiose, you don’t expect them to say, well, now that you mention it, I am.
MR. ZELENY: But I wouldn’t count Santorum out. I mean a lot of people are following him. He got the big boost from the evangelical leaders in the weekend meeting, last weekend in Texas. So I think some people may still go with him. James Dobson -- that’s a big deal.
MR. BABINGTON: One thing I’ve heard is that he did get that endorsement from that group of evangelicals in Texas, but there’s no real obvious surge that he got from that. Some people have told me that he needed a stronger infrastructure. If he had a greater sort of organization within South Carolina churches, on short notice, he might have been able to do more with that.
MS. TUMULTY: But actually, there was some brush back on that as well. And in part because some of Newt Gingrich’s top supporters in the evangelical community who were at the meeting came back the next day and sure enough, at least in an interview with me, Tony Perkins, who had organized that evangelical meeting said this should not be construed as an endorsement.
MR. YOUNGMAN: Yes, I keep asking the same question. Why isn’t Rick Santorum catching fire in a state like South Carolina? It finally occurred to me, I was asking the same question when I got to Iowa in early December. And he did catch fire. On paper, he should be an excellent candidate here. But for whatever reason, he’s just not – and I think Jeff hit the nail on the head. He’s not viewed as a big enough candidate. People are looking first and foremost to beat Barack Obama.
MS. TUMULTY: It’s also a bigger state. I mean, basically, he won Iowa because he was in everybody’s living room.
MR. BABINGTON: For months and months. And remember, here – a lot of people in South Carolina had never heard of Rick Santorum until very recently. A lot of people in Iowa hadn’t either, but he was there for so long they got to know him. But you know, right up till almost Christmas Day, Rick Santorum was almost an afterthought. He made that big quick surge in Iowa and that doesn’t give him as much time to get – for people in a state like this to get to know him.
MS. IFILL: And if you don’t have a structure to act on things when they start to go well, the fact that it suddenly – it turns out that he won in Iowa, we think. There’re a lot – eight precincts with missing votes, however, how that happens.
MS. TUMULTY: Iowa is the new Florida. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: Good one. I hadn’t thought of that. But the problem with that is you can’t capitalize on your good news if you don’t have the structure.
MR. ZELENY: He couldn’t. I mean, it’s after the fact. We’ve all moved on. But I think that he is – one thing I was struck by, I walked into his campaign office in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, which is just across the river from Charleston. And all the phones were manned; a lot of them were manned by Citadel Cadets. And one of them told me that he had made 1,300 phone calls like in the last few days, which is pretty impressive. I’m not sure how many people answered those calls, but I think that he does have a grassroots structure here going on.
But the biggest problem for Santorum, he doesn’t have the financial ability to amplify his message on television as much. He has a Super PAC which is only a fraction of the size of the others. He’s just not been able to put the muscle behind this organization in terms of his message. And he just doesn’t have the money to do it. But –
MS. IFILL: I heard Newt Gingrich say last night, though, you know, my campaign changed because, you know, I used to listen to the consultants. But now, I’m just doing my thing and I’m thinking the big ideas, and that’s why I’m doing well.
Well, if that’s true, then you don’t really need all that structure.
MR. ZELENY: Well, perhaps, but the reason that Newt Gingrich is still alive here is because of a man named Sheldon Adelson. He’s a Nevada casino owner who put in $5 million into his Super PAC to do a lot of TV ads. It’s not the only reason, but that certainly –
MS. IFILL: That’s a big one.
MR. ZELENY: – resuscitated him from his fifth place finish in New Hampshire.
MR. BABINGTON: And one more thing about Santorum’s problems here. We don’t talk about them much, but there are ads running a lot on television by Ron Paul that just savage Rick Santorum. I mean, they are – I think to me they are the most brutal ads that are out there. And you look at that and you say, oh my gosh, this guy sounds terrible. And you think, well that must be Gingrich going after him. It’s Ron Paul.
MS. IFILL: Let’s talk about Ron Paul because he’s not quite the same factor here that he’s been in the two previous states, but he’s not going anywhere as far as we can tell. He’s talking about going on, especially to caucus states like Nevada.
MR. YOUNGMAN: It’s interesting to see that he’s talking almost exclusively about Nevada these days because you’re right. He hasn’t caught fire here. But if you look at his base of support here, it’s also not going anywhere. It’s not as big as it was in Iowa or New Hampshire, but it’s steady. And I continue to believe that Ron Paul can stay in this race as long as he wants to. He’s got the money. He’s got the support. In 50 states, he’s got support. So –
MS. IFILL: And is that the message at an interesting time, too, doesn’t he?
MS. TUMULTY: You know, I’ve been struck by, I think, and I’d mentioned this in Iowa, at how the number of evangelicals I encounter who were being attracted to Ron Paul and his message. And I was struck. He was at an evangelical gathering on Monday and was talking about, you know, the biblical basis of strong money, which, I again had not – had not heard him say before.
MS. IFILL: In some ways, he is also in his way an anti-Romney in a race that was longing for one.
MR. ZELENY: I think that’s right and also I think his ceiling here, though, is more clear than in other places, and we saw that at the debate on Monday night on national security. I mean you heard that crowd as a very enthusiastic crowd and they were not enthusiastic toward his isolationist views and what not. So he has not spent a lot time if any, but boy, he spent – I haven’t added up all the recent numbers last couple of days, but I’m with Chuck on this. His ads are really driving, not necessarily lifting him up, but really holding some other people down. They’re extraordinary. And Santorum has not been able to respond in kind to those ads.
MS. IFILL: No, that’s a problem.
MR. ZELENY: It is an overwhelming advantage for Paul.
MR. BABINGTON: He is on the air, but you’re right, the ads are just devastating.
MR. YOUNGMAN: Two things I noticed about Ron Paul from last night’s debate was he came in with two missions. One was to keep hitting Santorum. He went to him twice. And the other was to let people know he’s a veteran, because he wants to tap into the armed services –
MS. IFILL: And now that Rick Perry’s out of the race –
MR. YOUNGMAN: Exactly. Six military bases here in South Carolina, huge veteran population. I think he’s trying to win some veterans here on the –
MS. TUMULTY: And a doctor, we heard a lot about –
MS. IFILL: He’s a doctor and married for 54 years. I wonder how come that – why that keeps coming up. So let’s talk about what we have to – what we’re going to see going forward. We get 24 hours till we begin to get a real sense of what voters think about this as opposed to what we all think about it. The Romney strategy seems to be in the last 24 hours, 48 hours had developed into demonizing Newt Gingrich and painting him as undisciplined, painting him as erratic, and Rick Santorum is certainly helping on that front. Am I right? Is that what you’re seeing as well?
MR. YOUNGMAN: I think so. We’re hearing the words unreliable leader from Mitt Romney surrogates, not so much from him, but from the people who are supporting his campaign, and I think most people who are supporting Newt Gingrich are saying, hey, we know what you’re saying about him. We like him anyway. We like that he’s a big ideas guy. We like that he’s bombastic because we want someone on the debate stage who will take a swing at President Obama.
MS. IFILL: On the other hand, the others want to paint Romney, and he’s been giving them some help this week, as kind of an out-of-touch elitist. So how does he dig himself out of that hole?
MS. TUMULTY: He does not seem to have figured out a way to do that as they are sort of portraying him as Thurston Howell III. I mean –
MS. IFILL: I love those Gilligan’s Island references. It’s always good.
MS. TUMULTY: But you know, when people here – taxes and bank accounts in the Cayman Islands, or he has described his own speaking fees, which were over $300,000 as not that much. And his explanation – he had a story to tell last night at the debate on his tax returns, but he just didn’t seem to get it out.
MS. IFILL: He doesn’t seem comfortable talking about money and maybe that’s because he’s had the luxury of not ever having to think about it all of his life.
MR. ZELENY: I think that’s right. And he also – his biggest argument really overall is that listen everyone, you may not be totally with me. You may not totally love me, but I’m the strongest person to take on Barack Obama. Well, now the other – some of his other rivals are really going after that and saying, are you really? Are you really the most electable? So I think that that is perhaps the most – if he goes out of South Carolina wounded a little bit, he’s going to have to repair this electability argument because that is his biggest sort of star, if you will, going forward, that’s his biggest attribute.
MS. IFILL: Well, who else has an electability argument to make? Is it – does Newt Gingrich suddenly have an electability argument even with all these issues which have surfaced about him this week?
MR. BABINGTON: Well, he makes that argument all the time. Of course, he goes at all –
MS. IFILL: Well, he says he can debate. That’s not –
MR. BABINGTON: He also – Ronald Reagan and I created all these jobs. I worked for Bill Clinton welfare reform, all that. But what – if you talk to a lot of mainstream establishment Republicans, they don’t buy – they’re very alarmed about. They feel that Gingrich would not do well against Barack Obama, and they are alarmed, I think, really some of them are. And so I think that’s why you can keep seeing these surrogates for Mitt Romney saying, look, I was with this guy in Congress. He was a disaster. He got thrown out by his own people after four years, et cetera, et cetera.
MS. IFILL: We heard Rick Santorum go after him very hard.
MR. BABINGTON: Santorum did a cogent explanation.
MS. TUMULTY: Newt Gingrich, his basic argument is that if you want to win in the fall, you need the clearest contrast possible with Barack Obama. I don’t know that this argument’s going to sell, but that’s where he’s going.
MR. YOUNGMAN: And you know, the other thing that gets lost is Newt Gingrich is this huge national figure because of his time as speaker and his various forays since then. But he’s never won a statewide race. You know, he was from a small district down in Georgia.
MR. ZELENY: And he struggled to win his own reelection several times in his district actually. I think Rick Santorum actually may have a bigger electability argument because he speaks with this populist message of this time of this place. He – you know, up from your bootstraps. He understands what people are going through. If this general election is going to be about, you know, the 99 percent versus the 1 percent of the income disparity in America, he certainly is a better sort of vessel for that, but of course he has a lot of other shortcomings that some others don’t have. So no one’s perfect.
MS. IFILL: You know, it strikes me what’s missing in this race now, with the exit of Rick Perry, is someone who can say legitimately I am a Washington outsider. I didn’t deal with Washington. I don’t understand those people in Washington. And that really taps into something I hear a lot, too.
MS. TUMULTY: Well, Romney.
MR. YOUNGMAN: Romney has the best –
MS. IFILL: He does have the best argument.
MR. ZELENY: That was probably the strongest line last night, when he jumped in between –
MS. IFILL: At the debate –
MR. ZELENY: – Santorum and Gingrich.
MR. YOUNGMAN: Well, he looked like the statesman between the three, although I think Ron Paul’s still going to win the anti-Washington crowd –
MR. BABINGTON: Even though he’s been in Congress a long time.
MS. IFILL: Even though he’s been in Congress. He’s a doctor. He’s a doctor. So we have a path out of South Carolina, after we leave here, to Florida, Nevada, Michigan. Are those the next big three tests, and who’s stronger in which of those places?
MR. BABINGTON: Romney has certainly some advantages. Florida is a big expensive state. He has the most money in organization. Nevada has a lot of Mormons. He’s Mormon. Michigan, his father, George Romney, was the governor. So he ought to have some pretty big built-in advantages.
MS. TUMULTY: Plus, didn’t he win both Nevada and Michigan last time?
MS. IFILL: I think he did.
MR. YOUNGMAN: I think –
MR. ZELENY: Only wins –
MR. YOUNGMAN: – the most important thing to remember about Mitt Romney is that while they wanted the early knockout, this campaign is built for a marathon, not a sprint. They looked at the David Plouffe playbook from Obama, 2008, and they learned very quickly. It’s a math game. It’s about numbers of delegates won. And so they’re prepared to take this thing as long as they need to.
MS. IFILL: The first time I ever heard that term, marathon, not a sprint, it came out the mouth of one Michael Dukakis. So I’m just saying that maybe that’s not the analogy –
MR. BABINGTON: But he got the nomination.
MS. IFILL: But he did get the nomination, which is all we’re talking about right now. Thank you all so much for riding this rollercoaster here with me this week in South Carolina. It has been amazing. And thank you also for watching.
Also special thanks to our hosts here at South Carolina Educational TV. For more insight into what’s going on here in South Carolina, be sure to check out our website for a terrific feature on the primary and the presidential election produced by students here at the University of South Carolina. They asked what issues are most important to young voters, and we think you’ll find their answers revealing. It’s all there, along with our weekly Webcast Extra at pbs.org/washingtonweek. And join us for the latest 2012 results and analyses next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.