|Gingrich is in second place in state polling, behind frontrunner Mitt Romney [GALLO/GETTY]
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina - On a gusty Monday afternoon in this seaside city, two candidates - former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich - stopped by the South Carolina Tea Party Convention to jockey for Tea Partiers' support. (Ron Paul had scheduled, but cancelled at the last minute.)
The Tea Party - a loosely-knit coalition of conservative groups that are particularly active in South Carolina - are struggling to unite behind a candidate. Many Tea Partiers see Mitt Romney, the current Republican front-runner, as insufficiently conservative.
Although Gingrich threw a few jabs at Romney in a 20-minute speech to the convention, the former speaker tried to couch his appeal in pragmatic terms. Gingrich described himself as "the only candidate who's close to being able to beat Romney" in the Republican primary. Furthermore, he said, the "moderate" Romney "can't possibly beat Obama" in the general election.
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Current polls show Romney drawing around 30 per cent of South Carolina voters' support, with Gingrich in the low 20s.
At the Tea Party convention, Gingrich had harsh words for Obama, whom he called the "most radical president in the history of the United States"; a "food-stamp president" - because of the increasing number of those in the US using food stamps since 2009; and, on foreign policy, as being "so weak and confused, it's truly dangerous".
The former speaker of the house is popular among Tea Partiers in South Carolina (one Ron Paul supporter at the convention described it as "a bit of a Newt-fest"). Allen Olson, who had served as the chairman of the Columbia Tea Party before he resigned to endorse Gingrich, said that Gingrich's platform focused on "issues that are core values of the Tea Party", such as balanced budgets and tax cuts.
But some conservatives at the Tea Party convention were sceptical. Gingrich has accused Romney of destroying jobs during Romney's time at Bain Capital, a private equity firm that specialises in acquiring troubled companies and improving the firms' financial wellbeing. Bill Conley, who's active with the Spartanburg Tea Party, said he didn't support Romney. But he strongly disapproved of Gingrich's attacks on Bain Capital. "Why would you do that as a candidate - attacking free markets?"
Softer on Obama
Gingrich's words were starkly different two days earlier, when he held a town hall event at an African Methodist Episcopal Zion church in Columbia, the state capital. About 80 people, a majority of whom were African-American, sat in the half-full nave.
In 2008 African-Americans voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama, who scored one of his most important victories that year in South Carolina's Democratic primary. And a poster in the church, entitled, "Men of Faith", pictured two men side-by-side: Dr Martin Luther King and Barack Obama.
"Why would you do that as a candidate - attacking free markets?"
- Bill conley, Spartanburg Tea Party
At this event, Gingrich had relatively positive things to say about Obama. "I believe he means well," said Gingrich, though he added that he disagrees with many of the president's policies. He called Obama "really, really impressive" in three of his last speeches before his inauguration. Gingrich even said that he told his wife Callista that "if [Obama] can be disciplined and govern based on these three speeches, he is going to split the Republican Party".
Gingrich even played up the fact that he "spent a good bit of time" with Reverend Al Sharpton, a firebrand African-American minister and Democratic activist, promoting charter schools together.
And - in language that would have worried hard-line Tea Partiers - Gingrich promised to make a "very serious outreach" to Democrats, were he elected president.
Despite the softened rhetoric, audience members - many of whom were Democrats - did not seem appeased. One woman was angry that Gingrich referred to Obama as the "food stamp president". Another audience member complained that Obama needed to be given more time. "We had a Republican [George W Bush] for eight years ... it's just like trash, it built up for eight years. It's going to take longer than four years to clean up that trash. So why y'all keep putting everything on him [Obama] when he's trying to clean it up?"
As he did in New Hampshire, Gingrich tailored his message to the state. He suggested that the international port at Charleston be modernised to allow bigger ships to dock, and criticised the National Labor Relations Board for trying to stop aerospace manufacturer Boeing from opening a non-union plant in South Carolina.
Although Gingrich was, for the most part, politely received by the audience, his message didn't seem to resonate particularly well. Several people were concerned by Gingrich's proposal that students in the poor school districts ought to work in their schools as janitors to build a strong work ethic. "Sometimes it comes across so negative to me, like we're not doing anything for our young people," said one woman. "And that's not true at all."
Another woman, a teacher in a poor school in Columbia, said she had been homeless for part of the past year, and didn't see how Gingrich's support of offshore oil drilling would help her. "I'm hearing about the oil, the natural gas, but this makes no difference to me when I have to decide whether I'm going to buy my mother's medicines ... or whether I'm going to pay for some place to stay."
The Bain game
Unlike at the Tea Party convention, voters at the Jones Memorial Church rather liked the attacks on Bain Capital. Larry Montgomery, a Democrat who plans on voting in the Republican primary, said that Gingrich "just told the truth" that "the downside of the whole system is, people lose their jobs".
And Richard LeNoir of Columbia, who says he will "absolutely" vote for Gingrich because of his experience in Congress, believes that Romney "can't be trusted, because he's a bit of a vulture capitalist". Asked whether he's seen the attack ads focusing on Romney and Bain Capital, LeNoir replied: "If it's true, is that an attack ad?"
Follow Sam Bollier on Twitter: @SamBollier
Source: Al Jazeera