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High Stakes In South Carolina Primary


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we will go to Mississippi, where a real firestorm is brewing over the more than 200 pardons former Governor Haley Barbour granted before he left office earlier this month. Now the state's attorney general is heading to court to try to void some of those. We'll talk with a reporter who's been covering this story in just a few minutes. But first we want to check in on national politics.

We want to check in on what's been a wild couple of days, particularly in the GOP primary race. Last night, the remaining Republican candidates vying for their parties nominations squared off in a final debate before Saturday's South Carolina primary, and there was plenty of news to set the stage ahead of that debate. Just yesterday we learned of troubling news for Mitt Romney coming out of Iowa.

A recount of that state's caucus results showed Rick Santorum actually got more votes than Romney in that contest. Also yesterday, Texas Governor Rick Perry suspended his campaign and threw his support behind former rival, the former speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich. Now, that was the good news for Mr. Gingrich. The bad news was that one of Mr. Gingrich's ex-wives, his second wife, Marianne, appeared on ABC News's "Nightline" last night and that was the topic that greeted Gingrich at the very start of last night's debate.


JOHN KING: She says that you came to her in 1999 at a time when you were having an affair. She says you asked her, sir, to enter into an open marriage. Would you like to take some time to respond to that?

NEWT GINGRICH: No, but I will.


MARTIN: Gingrich went on to launch a heated attack on the questioner in particular - that was CNN's John King - and the media in general. You know, we want to talk more about this, so we've called once again Corey Ealons. He's a senior vice president of the strategic communications firm VOX Global. He's also the former director of African-American media for the Obama administration. Welcome back.

COREY EALONS: Good to be here as always.

MARTIN: Also with us, Ron Christie. He is the founder and president of Christie's Strategies. That's a media and political strategy firm. He's also a former aid to Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush. Thank you so much for joining us once again...

RON CHRISTIE: Good to see you.

MARTIN: ...here in the studio. So I also want to mention that the Barbershop guys also want to weigh in on some of this, particularly the story about Mr. Gingrich, later in the program. You guys have both graced that roundtable too, but we're here now. And so first I want to talk about the South Carolina primary. The state has loomed very large, particularly in the public and presidential primary, because the candidate who's gone on to win that state has gone on to become the party's nominee.

Now, Romney has been the favorite to win, but recent polls show Gingrich kind of closing in and some polls actually show him leading. So Ron, I'm going to start with you and ask, was he able to make a convincing case in South Carolina last night?

CHRISTIE: Was Speaker Gingrich?

MARTIN: Speaker Gingrich.

CHRISTIE: I think he was. I think he was very fiery. I think he was very combative and I think that's what a lot of people in South Carolina want to see as their nominee. They want to see a fiscal conservative. They want to see a social conservative and they want to see someone who's going to reflect their values. The question for me is, is that sort of representation of a candidate, and what folks like to see in South Carolina, the sort of person who can win with independence and win with more moderate Republicans? And the answer to that question I think is no.

So I think he did well for his setting in South Carolina, but I don't think he set himself out well for the remaining contests.

MARTIN: And what about the whole question of the interview with his former wife and how he handled it and all of that? I mean, how do you think that's playing?

CHRISTIE: Well, I just think that there's a certain point that people say, really? A couple of days out before the South Carolina primary you're going to dredge up his ex-wife? I've only had one wife but I can imagine if I had an ex-wife she might not have nice things to say about me. It just looks like it was a shot designed to take the speaker down a peg. At the same time, I think he could have been a little less combative in the way that he answered the question.

Answer the man's question. You're on the stage. You're running for president. You don't have to put the media on trial. Answer the question and move on.

MARTIN: What do you think, Corey?

EALONS: Well, to both points in the question, the first one - right now Romney's going to be running against history. If he loses in South Carolina, because as we said, South Carolina has selected every Republican nominee since 1976, and so if he loses, that train of inevitability is definitely going to be off the rails. As far as the controversy with Gingrich and his wife, well, I'll tell you, I think it's old news. I think it's something that people have heard and I think, quite frankly, he's inoculated from it at this point.

MARTIN: Because?

EALONS: Primarily because he's made it this far in the process. I mean, let's think about this. This is the third life for Gingrich in this contest. He opened up as one of the frontrunners. He lost his campaign staff. He then came roaring back, back in November, December, where he we saw a tremendous resurgence, thought he was going to win Iowa, and then we saw a dramatic drop when he got beat up by the 527 ads, and now he's back for his third time near – in the top of this thing.

I like to say it this way. Iowa and New Hampshire pick losers because they are the - they winnow the process. South Carolina ultimately picks winners in the Republican process. So that's why the stakes this Saturday are much more higher as far as who the actual winner's going to be.

MARTIN: Oh, OK. So let me - I'm going to ask that but I do have to speak a little bit more about the - his sort of decision to attack the media in this. And I find it fascinating that, you know, when somebody comes up with the how dare you ask me that question, you know, generally it's because what they're saying is true. You know, we've seen that time and time again. I mean, with Bill Clinton it's like how dare you ask me about Monica Lewinsky. Well, guess what, it was true, and then we say with your former boss, Vice President Dick Cheney, when he was asked initially after joining the ticket about whether - and he was asked a very simple question by NPR's own Cokie Roberts while she was in ABC, whether they were at all concerned that, you know, that that office would add additional scrutiny to their family, and then it was how dare you.

Well, it's true. Their daughter's a very high - at the time a high profile LGBT activist. So I guess I'm always sort of struck by, yes, you know, that's great in the room, but what does that really say over the course of the contest?

EALONS: Well, it really speaks to the power importance of these conversations, what is the longest running reality show in politics right now with all these debates. Gingrich has gotten the big bulk of his success based on the debates. He hasn't had a lot of campaign money to spend on ads, and so whenever he's had an opportunity to take advantage of the debates, he's done so. He's been the best debater.

Last night was another part of that, another demonstration for that, and this schtick about going after the media, that's a song that he has sang multiple times and actually got his biggest bumps early in this process by doing exactly that.

MARTIN: We're talking with Corey Ealons. He's former director of African-American media for the Obama administration, and Ron Christie former aid to Vice President Dick Cheney and former President George W. Bush. He's now the head of his own communications and strategy firm. So just sort of tie a bow in it for me, if you would. For South Carolina, who do you think - you know, I hate to ask people to predict, but I am asking you who do you think has sort of consolidated his position.

What do you think? You know, they're down to four - Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, who got good news, and of course Ron Paul, who's been interesting but hasn't made much headway here.

CHRISTIE: Well, let me say two things. First, I think Corey's exactly right. I think the big winner in the PR battle for all this is Speaker Gingrich. He's going to raise money out of this. He's going to raise his profile. He's going to say, oh, I'm against the media, come pay attention to me. So I think he ultimately wins the PR battle. Who's going to win the contest? I actually had the chance to sit down with Scott Rasmussen and John Zogby earlier this week.

Both of their tracking polls have the speaker somewhere between three to five points up right now. I think that number is pretty accurate. My mom lives in South Carolina, lot of momentum going towards Speaker Gingrich. I think he wins in an upset.

MARTIN: Do you think--you think he wins in an upset?


MARTIN: Interesting. Governor Nikki Haley, who's also kind of a rising star in the Republican Party, supporting Mitt Romney - not making a difference?

CHRISTIE: It's not that I don't think that she's making a difference. From what the two pollsters told me earlier this week that I find fascinating, it's not so much that people like Gingrich; they like the idea of having the anti-Romney candidate. And so they're looking for somebody else. They think that Santorum isn't viable. They think Ron Paul isn't viable. They think, well, who can I put head to head going against the president in the debates and moving forward and they think it's Speaker Gingrich.

MARTIN: Corey, how do you read South Carolina?

EALONS: I've got to agree with Ron on this one. Basically what you're looking at is the challenge that we knew Mitt Romney was going to have coming into South Carolina. This was his real testing ground after Iowa, after New Hampshire. Is he going to be able to pull together conservatives, real conservatives? Is he going to be able to pull together evangelicals and get them on his side?

What you're seeing here is a real statement by evangelicals that they are not for Mitt Romney. That's going to be a real problem for him as we get further into this race and...

MARTIN: So is Newt Gingrich the nominee?

EALONS: ...if he becomes the eventual nominee.

MARTIN: So is Newt Gingrich the nominee? No?

EALONS: Well, history will bear it out.


EALONS: And we talked about that a little bit already, but I will tell you, it's going to be absolutely fascinating to see this thing. Just when we thought it was over with, a grenade comes in and blows it up.

MARTIN: That's interesting. History is being made, you know, as we speak. I mean, it would be a real precedent changer if that has - in the minutes that we have left, I wanted to talk about what could be a big issue in the general election.

President Obama rejected a proposal to build a pipeline to carry crude oil from Canada to Texas. People who live in certain cities may have seen a lot of ads about this on both sides or either side. So there's also been a big sort of internet and blog campaign on both sides around this.

President Obama said he objected to the 60 day time limit imposed by Congress to decide on the project, saying it didn't allow enough time to gather research. Republicans criticized the president, said this is a job killer at a time when we really need these jobs.

This is current House Speaker John Boehner.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: The president's policies are making the American economy worse rather than better. And this latest decision is just but the latest example. I'll just say this. This is not the end of the fight. Republicans in Congress will continue to push this because it's good for our country and it's good for our economy and it's good for the American people, especially those who are looking for work.

MARTIN: So, Ron, are Republicans of one mind on this?

CHRISTIE: I think we are. I think the president's talked about shovel-ready jobs and stimulating the economy. These are 20,000 - potentially 20,000 jobs that would be created from the Canadian border all the way down to Texas. A mistake. And I think the president's alienating a particular segment of his base, which is the unions who wanted this, so we'll see how it plays out.

MARTIN: OK. Corey, your take on this? Of course, the environmentalists were absolutely cheering this decision, saying this is a terrible environmental, you know, project, had terrible environmental impact. Your read on it?

EALONS: My sense is that the president, very quickly, is right from the policy perspective. I think the challenge is going to be messaging this in the environment that we're in. He's right because the deadline certainly wasn't enough to take the time to study this and study it properly, but at the same time, this is also a president who's talked about creating jobs and increasing our dependence on domestic energy sources.

So that's where the rub is going to be...

MARTIN: You worried about it?


MARTIN: I mean, in all candor, as an Obama partisan, are you worried about it?

EALONS: I'm not, actually, because there are a lot bigger issues that are going to unfold in this race and, right now, a lot of the focus is on what's the Republican field going to look like when it gets winnowed down? So I don't think it's going to be a big issue as we play this thing out.

MARTIN: All right. Well, we will see. Corey Ealons, senior vice president of the strategic communications firm VOX Global. He's the former director of African-American media for the Obama administration.

Ron Christie is senior vice president of the strategic communications firm - I'm sorry. Ron Christie is the CEO of Christie Strategies. He's a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney and Vice - I'm sorry - and President George W. Bush.

They both joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you both so much for joining us.

CHRISTIE: A pleasure to be with you both.

EALONS: Always good to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.