By: Ginger Gibson
January 20, 2012 06:01 PM EST
It’s a regular feature of the 2012 GOP presidential debates — that moment when Newt Gingrich takes a deep breath, then proceeds to rip the insipid moderator and the conflict-and scandal-mongering press.
His latest exercise in blistering media criticism proved to be the most successful of all — he won a standing ovation Thursday evening for dressing down CNN’s John King after the moderator opened the latest debate with a question about bombshell allegations made by Gingrich’s ex-wife.
Both Thursday and in numerous debates before, the former House Speaker’s stance suggested a candidate harboring deep bitterness toward the media, a man appalled by the very sight of notebook-carrying scribes.
The reality is very different.
The same candidate who on Thursday decried “the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media” shows another face to the cadre of reporters who follow his campaign day-to-day. He jokes with them, publicly celebrates their birthdays, teases them about the early hour they are often forced out of bed to cover his events.
It’s not unusual for Gingrich to chat with reporters, off-the-record, in the hotel restaurant at the end of a long day on the campaign trail — and he engages them to a degree that’s unheard of on the other campaigns.
Mitt Romney, for example, doesn’t make small talk with reporters about sports, the news of the day or the food at his events like Gingrich. No one gets close enough.
The contrast between the two couldn’t have been any clearer than Wednesday, when Romney stopped at a BBQ joint to shake hands and approached a family with a basket full of hush puppies. When a Washington Post reporter innocuously asked Romney if he planned to try one, the staff cut him off, insisting it was an off-the-record stop.
When the press tweeted about the incident, angry emails were dispatched from the former Massachusetts governor’s staff to offending reporters.
While Romney won’t take questions outside the safety of controlled press conferences, Gingrich is perfectly comfortable in unscripted situations, content to make small talk while working the public at events.
In New Hampshire, when he visited the world’s longest candy counter in Littleton, Gingrich was asked by a reporter about his favorite candy. He didn’t think twice: gummy bears.
The high level of comfort with the press reflects a political career spent with reporters in close quarters, mainly while he served in Congress. He understands the competitive pressures of the business — Gingrich recently joked with a reporter who waited in the rain to ask him a question as he exited his campaign bus that she was being rewarded with an exclusive for her persistence.
Gingrich also appears to make a distinction between individual reporters and the media as a whole and comprehends the insatiable nature of the modern news hole. Even amid the presidential campaign trail demands for message discipline, he holds a press availability nearly every day — a far cry from the front-runner Romney.
The former speaker is comfortable enough with the small group that travels with him daily that he even has inside jokes with them. He frequently pokes fun at his own staff, often making spokesman R.C. Hammond the subject of his jokes. Gingrich refers to him as “Toby’s assistant,” a reference to Hammond’s dog.
On a few occasions when Hammond has tried to shout questions during press conference, Gingrich has jokingly chastised him.
“You’re not the press,” he says, before returning to questions from reporters.
Hammond attributes the stark difference between the tongue-lashings Gingrich delivers at debates and the candidate’s relatively warm relationship with the traveling press — mainly embed reporters — to the way they interact with the campaign.
“The traveling press corps spends a lot of time listening over and over and over and over again to the candidate which allows for more informed conversation with the candidate,” Hammond said.
Gingrich acknowledged to ABC News in December that he appreciates the crew that chronicles his every move and follows the same grueling schedule.
“I actually identify with the people who are the embeds,” Gingrich said. “Also, we have really nice people. I mean all the guys who are hanging out with me are nice. I don’t know about the other campaigns.”
“I’ve just been struck with the good humor of the group,” Gingrich told ABC.
Gingrich knows his traveling band of reporters well enough to call on them by name. On Tuesday, he went so far as to begin a press conference with an unusual message: With more than 30 reporters and cameras pointed in his direction, he wished NBC embed reporter Alex Moe a happy birthday.
That wasn’t the end of it. Later that evening, as about 25 reporters and staffers dined in Columbia to mark Moe’s birthday, there was a late arrival — Gingrich, ambling into the back dining room with a glass of wine in his hand.
“I wanted to see the working press,” he joked, drawing laughter from the room.