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Some South Carolina voters inclined to look past Gingrich's baggage

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- During a three-day swing through South Carolina, Newt Gingrich spent a lot of time addressing liabilities for his revitalized campaign, some of which his opponents have tried to peg him over: his career as a Washington insider; his support of a “humane” approach to immigration; and even his personal skeletons, long out of the closet.

But conversations with South Carolinians who came to hear Gingrich speak suggest some voters here would overlook those hurdles, meaning his opponents might have to consider other lines of attack if Gingrich sustains his recent surge.

One such issue -- Gingrich’s 20-year Congressional career -- has become fodder for Mitt Romney, who on Monday called Gingrich a “life-long politician.”

Gingrich pushed back on that claim Wednesday at Tommy’s Ham House in Greenville, saying that he’s been a “lifetime citizen” since he was 15 years old and that he’s “worked every day since August 1958 to understand what America has to do to be successful” as a teacher, small business owner and, yes, politician.

But some voters here indicated that Gingrich’s longtime ties to Washington were actually part of his appeal.

“Because he’s spent so much time in Washington, he knows what it takes to get done,” said Bob Smith, 66, a marriage counselor from the coastal town of Hilton Head, who attended a town hall on Tuesday in nearby Bluffton. “He proved that in ’94 when he helped get rid of the Democratic majority and got America back on track even with a Democratic president.”

Virginia Coker, an 81-year-old former interior decorator from Hartsville, also said she liked Gingrich’s ability to navigate the halls of Congress and the White House. 

“He has been there,” said Coker, as she waited for a Gingrich town hall to start Tuesday night in Newberry. “He’s been in government. He knows the ropes. He knows the good and the bad.”

Gingrich has also been attacked over his views on immigration, most notably by Michele Bachmann who said his proposal to allow some illegal immigrants to stay in the U.S. amounted to amnesty.

On Wednesday morning, Gingrich called Bachmann “factually challenged” for making that claim but stood by his position throughout his trip here.

“I don't believe you'll ever pass a bill that requires us to hunt down every single person who has been here for a quarter century,” he said during a town hall in Charleston on Monday night. “And I think there's a humane, orderly way to do this.”

And some voters here seemed to agree with him, even as South Carolina recently passed a stringent anti-immigration law, parts of which are being blocked by the U.S. Justice Department.

“He’s obviously aware that people aren’t going to go into a church and raid churches and pull people out,” said Bob Deal, 48, who went to Gingrich’s Bluffton town hall on Tuesday.

David Oswalt, who attended the Newberry town hall, said he supported Gingrich’s stance, because illegal immigrants are crucial to many industries in the state. 

“I have a lot of friends in the farming business, and if it weren’t for the immigrants, the crop wouldn’t get picked,” said Oswalt, who owns a moving company in Batesburg. 

Gingrich’s personal baggage also came up during Tuesday’s town hall in Bluffton, when he was asked, “What is it about Newt Gingrich that’s going to come to the surface that’s going to keep us from voting from you?”

Gingrich -- whose two divorces and an affair with a Congressional staffer, now his wife, have been well documented -- answered first by laughing and throwing up his hands, as the crowd cheered him on.

“It’s all there!” a man shouted from the crowd. “It’s all out there!”

In a state where in 2008, 60 percent of GOP primary voters said they were evangelical or born-again Christians, some seemed willing to forgive.

Harvard Riddle, 76, happened upon Gingrich’s town hall at Tommy’s on Wednesday morning, as he was meeting his Bible study group there.

“The Bible says, ‘Judge not lest you be judged.’ So I really can’t say,” Riddle said. “That was he and his wife’s business.”

Riddle, though, added that he thought Romney, who has his own uphill climb in South Carolina because of his Mormon faith, would probably be the best challenge to President Obama.

While Gingrich may have a trickier time explaining his infidelity to female voters, something Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention noted in an open letter to Gingrich Tuesday -- at least one of them, Coker, said she wasn’t deterred.

“Life is made up of problems. And just because he had those problems does not mean that he’s not a wonderful candidate to be president.”