“You can’t grow a relationship unless you come into the presence of the one you love,” exhorted Pastor Charles Jackson, at Brookland Baptist, where we attended church on Sunday morning before heading home to Seattle. The pastor was using a metaphor to talk about humanity’s relationship with God, and the necessity of nearness in building and sustaining real community.
But the metaphor also spoke to how Newt Gingrich won over South Carolina this past week. He came down into the presence of South Carolinians. And he wooed them.
All the other candidates seemed to understand the importance of doing that. With the exception, perhaps, of Mitt Romney.
When Prof. David Domke, the rest of the UW Election Eye team and I arrived more than a week ago now, we attended a rally for Rick Santorum in Florence. We immediately sensed the importance of the old-fashioned pressing-of-the-flesh. This state and its people expect to be wooed and won over by candidates.
People like Jim Griffin, 71, a resident of Greenville, who attended a Gingrich rally Saturday at Tommy’s Country Ham House, the day of the primary. It was his first political event of the season. He came partly out of curiosity, but also because he thought it was important to see politicians in person. He has seen a number of would-be presidents troop through the Ham House, including Ronald Reagan.
“South Carolina likes a fighter,” he said. “I like Mitt, but I don’t know if he’s feisty enough. Newt is.”
For many people I talked to, the best way of making that kind of judgement was getting up close to Gingrich.
Kelly and Phil saw Gingrich in Anderson, at the Chick-fil-a there. They came for a chicken sandwich and a “Newt to go.”
More seriously, though, they told me that South Carolina’s role in the candidates’ run for the highest office in the land was vital.
“I don’t understand those who don’t think it is,” Kelly said, packed back near the door to the restaurant, filled to overflowing with people eager to spot Gingrich and his wife, Callista.
“We try to stay really informed. It’s important,” she said.
People liked seeing the candidates. They talked to them, tweeted about them and took pictures of them for their friends and family. The smarter candidates knew this, and shook their hands and looked them in the eye. A lot. As many as five or six events a day, every day.
You can’t just dial it in, not in South Carolina. No amount of air time or super PAC ads could win the day. You had to be there, visiting the small towns and bigger cities, working the ropes lines, talking to people, listening to people, and being palpably present.
South Carolina has to be courted, like a feisty southern belle. Think Scarlet O’Hara. And this time, Gingrich was the roguish Rhett Butler.
At the remnants of the Romney rally Saturday night in Columbia, the dispirited volunteers there said that they wished that their guy had lingered longer and rallied his troops, even in defeat. Contrast this to Gingrich’s stop in Powdersville earlier in the day, to the polling place at the middle school, after his Ham House detour.
Gingrich got permission to come inside and thank the volunteers running the polling site, after taking the time to meet everyone outside. He strolled into the school library, thanking Nancy Graham, a math teacher from nearby Greenville, and Mary Jane Bennett, the polling-site supervisor.
He came up to me and extended his hand. I wasn’t sure what to do. After all, I was there reporting, not voting, and had been talking to Graham at the check-in table. I decided to do the South Carolinian thing. I took his hand.
“Thank you for your service,” he said, and eyeing my press badge, before turning around and walking out.
Bennett said she hadn’t seen anyone quite that famous before. She wasn’t blushing, but she did look proud. He had come by to see and thank them. In another time, but not another place, they would have said that he had “come a-courtin’.”