WASHINGTON — Did former South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson switch horses too early a few months ago when he abandoned then-floundering Newt Gingrich to become chief of Texas Gov. Rick Perry's campaign in the state's critical, first-in-the-South presidential primary?
Dawson, an influential pol who fell just short of becoming national Republican chairman nearly three years ago, doesn't think so.
Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives from Georgia, arrived in Charleston, S.C., on Monday for three days of campaigning on a wave of new polls putting him atop the pack in both the state and the nation.
Dawson dismissed Gingrich's current success as the most recent in a string of meteoric rises by various candidates, Perry among them, who have later stumbled.
"This primary season has kind of been like NASCAR," Dawson told McClatchy. "People are looking more to see the wreck than they are to see really who's going to win the race. Right now Newt's on top, but everybody has been on top at one time."
Andre Bauer, a former South Carolina lieutenant governor and a 2010 gubernatorial candidate, endorsed Gingrich on Monday. That followed a slew of earlier Perry endorsements by key Republicans, along with smaller numbers for former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
Landing in South Carolina, Gingrich moved to deflect criticism among GOP activists for the forgiving stance he took on illegal immigrants in a debate last week, when he urged lenient treatment for undocumented workers who've been in the United States for a long time and have established close family ties.
He criticized the Justice Department for filing suit against South Carolina's new immigration law and met with one of its authors, state Sen. Larry Grooms. The South Carolina law requires local and state police to call federal immigration officials if they suspect someone of being in the country illegally. It also creates a police force to crack down on people who make fraudulent photo ID cards for illegal immigrants and tightens other enforcement provisions.
"After years of failure on the part of the federal government to achieve border security, it is an outrage that the Obama administration would seek to block South Carolina and other states that choose to pick up the slack," Gingrich said after meeting with Grooms.
Despite his controversial immigration comments last week, Gingrich has performed well in debates even as Perry, Bachmann and former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain have committed gaffes that dominated news cycles and slowed their momentum.
"This has been a campaign measured by debate after debate after debate," Dawson said. "In a campaign where there's going to be in excess of 19 debates, that certainly plays to the (former) speaker's strength and not his weaknesses, especially when he's out of money and in debt."
Furman University political science professor Danielle Vinson said the race is still fluid, and she said Gingrich could fall as quickly as he's risen.
"Gingrich is a tough person to work for in a campaign because he says whatever comes to mind, and it has the potential at any given moment to cause his campaign to implode," Vinson said. "There's still plenty of time for him to do that. He's not a disciplined guy. He's going to do it his way no matter what his advisers tell him, and that can be really frustrating for a political consultant."
Dawson said that when he first hooked up with Gingrich in the spring, Perry wasn't yet running for president.
Then in June, Dawson was among a handful of senior advisers who left Gingrich's campaign, citing differences over campaign strategy.
With Dawson at his side, Perry announced his candidacy in Charleston on Aug. 13 and immediately shot to the top of the polls, both in South Carolina and nationally. But a series of debate stumbles has eroded his support, and he tumbled to fourth place, with just 6 percent backing, in last week's statewide survey by The Polling Co., with Gingrich first at 31 percent. In an average of four national polls taken between Nov. 13 and Nov. 20, according to realclearpolitics.com, Gingrich leads with 23.8 percent support, followed by Romney at 21.3 percent and Cain at 15.5 percent. Perry and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas are tied at 8 percent.
Dawson predicted those numbers will change because most GOP activists are still uncertain about who they'll support.
"We see two-thirds of Republican voters not really solidified on a pick, so it's still game on," Dawson said. "South Carolina mirrors the nation right now. If you push them hard, they're just kind of undecided."
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