Another chance to make a first impression?
Fresh off a rousing debate performance that had the Republican audience giving a standing ovation -- purportedly the first in a debate since Ronald Reagan in New Hampshire in 1980 -- Newt Gingrich may be reconsidering how far he can go in the GOP campaign.
Holding a distant second place in several polls, Gingrich said Tuesday that he could stick it out past South Carolina if he performs well enough against front-runner Mitt Romney.
"If (Romney is) at 25 or 30 (percent), we're still in a serious race," Gingrich told CBS' "This Morning." "If he gets up to 40 or 45, you have to be realistic."
The former speaker told Fox News on Tuesday he thinks debate prowess will be a "big factor" in Saturday's election, as primary voters look for somebody who can defeat President Obama on the debate stage. The candidates have one more debate on Thursday before Election Day.
But the latest Fox News poll continued to show Mitt Romney faring best against Obama in a general election. Unless Gingrich or another candidate steps up in South Carolina, Romney is poised to go three-for-three in the first primaries of the season.
Gingrich offered several forceful arguments on Monday night. He defended calling Obama the "food stamp president," pointing out that the food stamp rolls are at historic highs.
"Now, I know among the politically correct, you're not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable," Gingrich said.
He also took Ron Paul to task for likening the U.S. raid on Usama bin Laden's Pakistani compound to a hypothetical China-led raid on the U.S. to capture a "Chinese dissident."
"Bin Laden plotted deliberately, bombing American embassies, bombing the USS Cole, and killing 3,100 Americans, and his only regret was he didn't kill more. Now, he's not a Chinese dissident," Gingrich said, drawing applause. "The analogy that Congressman Paul used was utterly irrational."
Gingrich called for tying all unemployment compensation, which currently lasts 99 weeks, to a job-training requirement. He also won strong support from the audience when he was asked whether it was belittling to minorities to suggest that poor children work as janitors to build a work ethic.
Gingrich replied, "No, I don't see that."
He said dozens of people have reached out to him recalling jobs they got when they were "11, 12, 13 years of age," and defended the idea of paying kids to work in school.
"They'd be getting money, which is a good thing if you're poor. Only the elites despise earning money," he said, later adding: "I believe every American of every background has been endowed by their creator with the right to pursue happiness. And if that makes liberals unhappy, I'm going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job and learn some day to own the job."
To be sure, the former House speaker said he was surprised by the audience reaction in Monday night's debate.
"We've done 15 debates and never seen anything like it," he said. "I frankly was very pleased, but also more than surprised. I think everybody was surprised by it."
Gingrich is maintaining a busy schedule in the Palmetto State as he tries to build on any debate momentum he may have accumulated. Four days before the primary, the former front-runner finds himself returning to the strategy he relied on earlier in the campaign -- using the exposure of aggressive debate performances to recharge his profile.
But while conservative pundits praised the performance, it's voters on the ground who will make the decision, and they were being heavily courted by Gingrich's rivals, including front-runner Romney.
The former Massachusetts governor held an economy-focused rally in Florence, S.C., on Tuesday morning, though he has a fundraiser scheduled later in the day in New York City.
"There are some who think we should try a new path altogether," Romney said Tuesday. "I see the folks on Wall Street, the Occupy Wall Street people, angry, wanting to take a different course. They don't know what course it would be, just something different. I see a president trying to transform, fundamentally, America. They're going in the wrong direction, folks."
Romney and his supporters have tried to embarrass Gingrich in recent days by tying him to left-wing talking points for his attacks on Romney's days at investment firm Bain Capital. The Bain attack backfired in several conservative circles, though Gingrich on Tuesday defended his right to question his opponent's record.
With Jon Huntsman out of the race, Gingrich has to compete against three other candidates for the "Not Romney" vote. Rick Perry's numbers are about 6 percent in South Carolina, though he tried to stress his pitch Monday night as the campaign's lone outsider candidate. Ron Paul and Rick Santorum are just a few points back from Gingrich in an average of state polls. A new Monmouth University poll showed Romney with 33 percent and Gingrich with 22 percent -- Santorum and Paul followed with 14 and 12 percent, respectively.
Santorum aggressively targeted Romney at Monday's debate. He complained that a political action committee supporting Romney is lying in TV advertisements in South Carolina attacking Santorum on several issues, including his support for voting rights for felons.
"It is inaccurate," Santorum said of the ad assailing him, seeking the last word. "I would go out and say, 'Stop it, that you're representing me and you're representing my campaign. Stop it.'"
And Paul hammered a bring-the-troops-home theme at Monday's debate. As some of his foreign policy views have come under fire from his opponents, Paul tried to make a distinction between military cuts and defense cuts -- Paul said he wants to maintain a strong national defense, but cut spending on overseas military operations. "I've never quite understood this. We are supposed to be conservatives. Spend less money," Paul said.
Gingrich's supporters squared off against Santorum's supporters over the weekend at a meeting of evangelicals and other conservative leaders who were trying to settle on a consensus candidate.
They ended up choosing Santorum in the third round of balloting, though some complained about the process.
Gingrich is nevertheless trying to consolidate the Not Romney vote. He claimed Tuesday that conservatives are starting to close ranks behind him.
"It's very clear -- if conservatives in South Carolina decide to be for Newt Gingrich, that in fact I'll win the primary on Saturday," he said, as he also picked up the endorsement of South Carolina Lt. Gov. Ken Ard. The state's governor, Nikki Haley, is backing Romney.
On Fox News Tuesday morning, he said voters "need somebody who can go toe-to-toe with Barack Obama and defeat him in the debates this fall."
"And I think once again last night, people had a sense that I was the guy who could best explain conservatism and could best stand there face-to-face with Obama and win the debate," Gingrich said.