COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The Republican presidential primary race is still fluid in the Palmetto State, but some in the grassroots are starting to get their hearts set on former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
"That just tells me a lot of vetting is beginning to happen," says Bennett, pointing to the Tea Party activists' reputation for being tough and thorough judges of politicians' conservative records before deciding whom to back and whom to oppose.
A hundred miles north on the South Carolina coastline, a similar sentiment seems to be forming. Gingrich won an unusual straw poll held at the Rotelli's pizza and pasta restaurant in Myrtle Beach where an estimated 85 to 100 top local Republicans gathered to watch the CNBC debate Wednesday. Their opinion of who won the debate, as counted by an informal paper ballot, broke down as follows:
Bachmann, Huntsman, Perry, Santorum 0%
Participating in the straw poll were members of the Horry County Republican Party, Carolina Forest Republican Club, South Strand Republican Club, Northern Horry Republican Club, the Myrtle Beach Tea Party and Carolina Patriots - a combination of both establishment and grassroots conservatives. A second question on the ballot - who is your choice for the Republican candidate - produced the following result:
Put simply, a Newt-Cain dream ticket, and not one vote for Mitt Romney. It's worth nothing there's little room for moderates in Horry County, which went 62 percent for John McCain in the 2008 general election and 64 percent for conservative Gov. Nikki Haley in last year's state elections.
"Those people who were behind Perry, now they are pushing Gingrich," says Myrtle Beach City Councilman Randal Wallace, who is still undecided.
Could Gingrich be the Romney alternative some have been hoping for? His campaign is betting on it. Gingrich's campaign recently announced it is expanding its South Carolina operation to nine staffers, the highest number of paid hands in the state - with Perry and Bachmann trailing with seven each. Gingrich officially cuts the ribbon for his state headquarters in Greenville on Saturday.