First, the welfare issue: In the January 16 Fox News debate, Juan Williams asked Newt whether it was offensive to say that black people “should demand jobs, not food stamps” and to call Barack Obama the “food stamp president.” Newt’s eyes lit up like slugger Albert Pujols seeing a hanging curveball and he smashed it for a home run: “Well, first of all, Juan, the fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history. … Now, I know among the politically correct, you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable. … And if that makes liberals unhappy, I’m going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job and learn some day to own the job.” The crowd repeatedly interrupted Newt with wild applause, and he added later that Republicans “are a party that believes in work.”
Garry Wills wrote that “South Carolina is the honorary home of Southern Republicanism, laid on Goldwater foundations.” It’a hard to imagine another issue that would fire up the “Goldwater foundation” of Republicans as much as having a liberal journalist accuse them of being racist for opposing welfare abuse. Even Amy Walters of ABC admitted, “There is no fatter and more appealing target to an audience of conservative Republicans than the mainstream media.”
The Gingrich counter-attack worked: the next round of polls had the Romney lead over Gingrich cut in half.
The CNN debate on January 19 proved to be an even bigger bonanza for Newt. Earlier that day, ABC News had leaked excerpts from an interview with Gingrich’s second ex-wife Marianne in which she accused him of requesting an “open marriage.” CNN anchor John King opened the debate by asking Newt if he wanted to comment on the ABC story. Newt indignantly replied: “No, but I will.” He immediately stated it was “appalling” that with all the important issues facing the world, King would ask this question first. When King replied by saying that ABC first raised the issue, the studio audience booed him lustily and Newt slammed him again: “Don’t try to blame somebody else. You and your staff chose to start this debate with that.” Newt went on to deny the charge, and blasted away further: “I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans.”
As Bill Mahrer joked on HBO, Newt “beat John King up, took his lunch money and shoved him into a locker.” Romney himself backed away from previous statements that he expected to win South Carolina. By the day before the primary, Newt had surged from 14 points behind in the Rasmussen poll to 2% ahead — all in five days! That surge continued on primary day.
It’s a close call as to what is more unpopular among the Republican base: welfare or the “elite media.” But Newt got to smash at both of them in the same week and it hit home in South Carolina. A week ago, the Republican primary campaign looked like a Romney coronation. Now, thanks to Newt’s agile maneuvering and the debate moderators’ clumsiness, the contest will go on. In the Palmetto State at least, Republicans are still the party of Goldwater and Reagan — and apparently Newt.