Newt's Secret Campaign: How Gingrich Really Won S.C.

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Although pundits have focused on the former speaker's debate performances, the truth is his organization -- the largest in the state -- was crucial to his win.

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COLUMBIA, S.C. -- As ecstatic supporters of Newt Gingrich celebrated his upset victory here Saturday night, it was common to observe how unimaginable this moment would have been two weeks ago.

But Tony Shipley says he "absolutely" could have anticipated it, and not just because he believes in Gingrich so ardently. "What people don't realize is, we were working very hard to make it happen," said Shipley, Gingrich's Tennessee state coordinator -- one of a dozen Tennesseans who deployed to South Carolina to work the state for Gingrich in the days leading up to the primary.

For all the talk about how Gingrich's debate performances fueled his sudden turnaround, there was another key factor: he had the most extensive campaign in South Carolina.

Gingrich had 12 paid staffers in the state and five offices, the only candidate with more than one. It was part of a strategic decision, made months ago, to focus on South Carolina as the state where he was most likely to find an opening. Gingrich moved much of his national operation to the Palmetto State and focused on courting Tea Party activists and the conservative Upstate region, where he drew his strongest support in the primary.

Prior to the New Hampshire primary, Gingrich had spent 21 days in the state, second only to Rick Santorum's 27 and far ahead of the 11 each clocked by Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, according to state party officials.

"We have been working on this for months now," an exhausted Ruth Sherlock, the campaign's deputy state director, said Saturday night. "Anytime there was a meeting of a 9/12 group, a Tea Party group, a Republican group -- any time three or more Republicans were getting together in South Carolina, we would have someone there to talk about Newt." Not all the other campaigns could say the same. Perhaps crucially, as Gingrich's personal life was dredged up in the final days of the campaign, three of the five regional field directors were women.

R.C. Hammond, Gingrich's beleaguered traveling press secretary, said South Carolina was always the linchpin of the campaign's strategy. "We picked one state where we thought we could do well, and we focused on it," he said.

It is, of course, convenient for Gingrich's camp to insist now that they never really tried to win Iowa or New Hampshire. But there's evidence to support this point. Back in October, national coalitions director Adam Waldeck moved from his home in Virginia to South Carolina to anchor the campaign there. A key hire was Allen Olson, founder of the Columbia Tea Party.

At one point, the Gingrich camp's outreach to the Tea Party was so ardent that Michele Bachmann's campaign accused them of "trying to buy off" activists in the state. (In fact, some Tea Party figures, like Olson, did get paying jobs with the Gingrich campaign.)

"Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich were the only candidates who had significant staffs in South Carolina," said veteran Greenville-based consultant Chip Felkel, who has spent the current campaign season working on and promoting his book about golf rather than working for any of the candidates. "Perry wasn't going anywhere. But Gingrich had an organization, and it was a factor for him."

The importance of this shouldn't be overstated. South Carolina is not like Iowa, where ground game is everything and votes are practically individually whipped. And it's always easy in retrospect to make the winning campaign out to be geniuses, the losers hapless bumblers.

What's more, Gingrich's South Carolina operation was hardly a well-oiled machine. One unaligned operative described them as "the gang that couldn't shoot straight" and recounted logistical debacles like a fundraiser that went nearly unattended because of problems getting out invitations. If Gingrich had the state's best campaign, that was partly because no other candidate bothered to build a better one.

Nonetheless, Gingrich's ground game served a vital function. When he was cratering everywhere else, it held him up.

"South Carolina is not a ground-game state, but it is a ground-game state in that when you get attacked, you have to have a network of people to defend you," Felkel said. "Romney has not had that in South Carolina, and he had an awful week. When that happens and you don't have a ground game, the rug got pulled out from under him. Gingrich had activists out there sticking up for him."

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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