Gingrich tops poll as he heads to S.C.

Setting his sights on a victory in South Carolina's pivotal, first-in-the-South primary, new Republican front-runner Newt Gingrich will campaign in the state today through Wednesday.

The former House speaker, who launched his political career in neighboring Georgia, is scheduled to attend a fundraiser in Charleston, open a Lowcountry campaign office in Beaufort, feast on barbecue in Newberry and answer questions at town hall meetings in Charleston, Bluffton, Newberry and Greenville.

South Carolina "is the first test of who's up with Southern Republican conservatives," said Neal Thigpen, retired chairman of the political science department at Francis Marion College in Florence. "And now that (Gingrich) is back in favor, he sees an opportunity to really dig in, with hopes of winning here."

The most recent South Carolina poll results, released last week by The Polling Company, put Gingrich on top in the Palmetto State, with 31 percent.

The runners-up: Georgia businessman Herman Cain at 17 percent and former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney at 16 percent.

S.C. voters won't go to the polls until after their counterparts in Iowa vote in caucuses Jan. 3 and New Hampshire Republicans make their first-primary picks Jan. 10.

But as a student of history, Gingrich knows a win in South Carolina's GOP primary - scheduled for Jan. 21 - has traditionally determined the eventual Republican nominee, from Ronald Reagan in 1980 to John McCain in 2008.

"If we win South Carolina, we will win the nomination," Gingrich told supporters earlier this month at the grand opening of his state headquarters. "And I believe if we win the nomination, we will win the presidency."

Most of Gingrich's rivals also have campaigned in the state. Romney stepped up his effort in South Carolina recently in hopes of winning a crowded field. Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania has visited 27 times, more than any other candidate.

To survive until the South Carolina vote, Gingrich will have to do well in Iowa and compete with Romney in New Hampshire, where the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts is ahead in most polls.

Gingrich's chances in New Hampshire got a big boost Sunday, with a front-page endorsement from the conservative Manchester Union-Leader, an influential voice with the state's Republicans.

"For Gingrich to hold on to what he has in South Carolina, he's going to have to show the flag up the road by doing well in Iowa, then surprising people in New Hampshire," said Thigpen, also a longtime GOP activist and S.C. delegate to five Republican national conventions.

"Will he survive to South Carolina? There's just no telling. But I think his chances among the tea party right-wing people at this moment are better than any of the other (candidates)."

Meanwhile, Gingrich is busy building an organization in South Carolina, opening field offices and bulking up on staff.

This week, he'll also bring some of the national media spotlight to the state. Tonight, about 6:30 p.m., he and U.S. Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., are scheduled to be interviewed from South Carolina on CNN's "John King USA." (At 7 p.m., Scott will host Gingrich at a town hall meeting at the College of Charleston.)

Then, at 8 p.m., Gingrich will show up - from Charleston - on Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor." He'll be back on Fox on Wednesday, when he does Sean Hannity's show after holding a town hall meeting in Greenville that morning.

That Gingrich has been married three times could hurt him among S.C. evangelicals, who traditionally make up as much as 60 percent of the state's GOP primary voters, Thigpen said.

But Thigpen gives Gingrich credit for appreciating the strategic importance of South Carolina, even back when the former House speaker's campaign seemed doomed, with staffers abandoning him and his fundraising in the tank.

"From the very beginning ... he kept his eye on South Carolina," Thigpen said. "South Carolina is a must. If you're on the right flank in this race and you can't win here or come close, you've got problems."

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