Bill Whalen

Newt Aims Up (State), Mitt Aims Low (Country)

The first question out of the chute in Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate: Newt Gingrich being asked to respond to his ex-wife’s allegation that he wanted an open marriage.

If you believe there’s a media conspiracy against Gingrich, this should dispel that notion.

Gingrich looked outraged. And, something unique in the staged world of presidential politics: genuinely outraged.

Gingrich dressed down CNN’s John King in particular – and the media in general – in no uncertain terms. The audience gave him a standing ovation (his second this week).

If the former Speaker wins the primary on Saturday (indeed, polls showed Gingrich surging into the lead after trailing as recently as last weekend), King’s question might be remembered as a pivotal moment in what only a few days ago seemed an improbable comeback.

So much for the media conspiring against him.

As for that interview, it’s not easy to watch. Marianne Gingrich, his second wife, is a study in anguish.

It’s also something of political uncharted waters.

For years we’ve gone through a parade of mistresses, alleged victimized women and wives who willingly go through the very public humiliation of standing by the man – such as this video of Silda Wall Spitzer.

But when was the last time an ex-wife – a woman scorned – had her say?

Back in the 1988 campaign, reporters were anticipating this from the late Phyllis Holden Macey, Bob Dole’s first wife. So the press corps beat a hasty path to her front stoop. What they found was an ex-wife supportive of Dole’s presidential run – to the point where she was cross-stitching for the cause.

Not so in 2012.

Watching the Marianne Gingrich interview, I thought of the Gennifer Flowers saga from the 1992 election and its impact on politics – Flowers being the model/actress who came forward and alleged a 12-year affair with then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.

You might remember how that election-year drama played out. Flowers alleged a long-term affair. Bill and Hillary took to 60 Minutes, broadcast right after Super Bowl XXXVI so the Clintons enjoyed a large national audience, to present a united front (the future president basically lying through his teeth). Two days later, Flower held a press conference with audiotapes to back up her claim.

The controversy didn’t sink Clinton’s campaign. And because it didn’t, some will argue it only made it easier for unfaithful politicians to get elected (something that benefits Gingrich in this cycle – ironically, Gingrich the same man who lectured Bill Clinton on lax morals during the Lewinsky impeachment saga).

There are two differences to note:

  1. The Clintons’ 60 Minutes appearance and Flowers’ subsequent press conference played out 20-plus days before New Hampshire saved Clinton’s candidacy by handing him a second-place finish. The dust-up between Newt and his ex occurred only hours before South Carolina’s vote. Not much time for voters to process the information.
  2. The sympathy factor. I’m attaching two images – one of Marianne Gingrich, the other of Gennifer Flowers. You decide which one elicits more sympathy. The point being: in theory, the topic’s not a drag on Gingrich’s candidacy. A December Washington Post/ABC News poll showed three-fourths of respondents saying the former Speaker’s marital history made no difference on how they planned to vote. Only one in five said it made them willing for vote for Gingrich. Let’s see if that holds true now that there’s a human face to go with history.

As for Saturday’s vote, there’s a preconceived notion that South Carolina is a conservative one-dimensional state (to listen at times to NPR, one would assume it’s little more than Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? and another land of backward southerners).

Sure, it’s GOP turf. Both U.S. Senators, the governor and lieutenant governor all are Republicans, as are four of the six U.S. House members. The state, one of only six to go for Barry Goldwater in 1964, last went Democratic in a presidential election in 1976 (in contrast to the Democrats’ Reconstruction-New Deal death grip – Herbert Hoover, for example, getting only 6% of the state’s vote in 1928).

Still, Saturday offers a litmus test for Republicans.

As explained here, the choice between Mitt Romney, Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul is little different from 2008 and the John McCain/Mike Huckabee contest. The primaries then and now played out as a split between South Carolina’s more conservative populist up-country voters and less conservative establishment Republicans down in the low country.

In a state not as conservative as, say, Iowa.

Per 2008 exit polls, 88% of all participants in that year’s Iowa caucuses identified themselves as “very” or “somewhat” conservative. In New Hampshire, the corresponding number was 55%.

But South Carolina, the state with the most military veterans per capita? Only 68% of the primary electorate called itself conservative; the Palmetto State had double Iowa’s percentage of moderates.

Saturday will tell us one of two things: Romney, like McCain, mustered enough establishment Republicans to eke out a plurality win; the more fiery populist up-country vote rallied behind Gingrich, as it almost did for Huckabee.

Unless something else strange happens in what little time’s left in an already very strange week of candidates vanishing and ex-wives emerging.

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