Newt Gingrich back on his game
By: Ginger Gibson
February 23, 2012 12:30 AM EST
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Newt Gingrich didn’t have a game-changing moment in Wednesday night’s Arizona debate.
But the former House speaker’s newest approach to the Republican presidential race — staying above the fray, avoiding attacks and focusing on the issues — proved to be a winner for him anyway.
“Newt’s last two outings were disjointed and low-energy,” said Rick Wilson, a GOP strategist who is unaligned in the presidential race. “Tonight was markedly better.”
But Gingrich had more ground to make up than the other candidates in Wednesday’s debate. More than his GOP rivals, Gingrich has used his debate performances — often marked by scathing attacks on the media — as a springboard for jump-starting his erratic campaign. Many attributed Gingrich’s sole win this primary season in South Carolina to a confident performance in a pre-primary debate.
As his poll numbers have continued to dive, the debate was seen as one of Gingrich’s last opportunities to regain traction before Super Tuesday on March 6. The question is whether a good debate performance can translate into major momentum so late in the game, especially with Rick Santorum now challenging Mitt Romney for first place.
“He dealt himself back in the game with some of the Newt magic,” Wilson said. “But Newt doing well now comes out of Santorum’s numbers, not Mitt’s.”
Gingrich laughed and smiled during the debate, leaned back in his chair on several occasions and beamed when Romney gave him several pointed looks during his responses to questions. When asked to use one word to describe himself, Gingrich responded with: “Cheerful.”
“He looked relaxed and looked like he was having fun,” said Chip Saltsman, who was Mike Huckabee’s campaign manager in 2008. “Definitely in his element.”
“I think he would rather be in the fray,” Saltsman said. “But staying above it worked for him tonight.”
Gingrich’s campaign argues that he remains a viable candidate who can prosper off a big win on Super Tuesday after doing well in Georgia and Tennessee.
But Gingrich’s day-to-day activities have shifted away from the daily grind that characterizes a national presidential campaign. He has stopped personally attacking his opponents almost entirely and instead of 30-second television advertisements, his campaig is buying 30-minute blocks to air things like a speech on energy.
Gingrich is campaigning by “looking presidential, by acting presidential,” spokesman R.C. Hammond said. “Which is why he went off and and did a 28-minute, one-take speech on our national energy policy without notes. I don’t think there is a candidate on that stage who could talk 28 minutes about their grandmother.”
Gingrich’s public image took a blow when he went on the attack earlier in the campaign, with one poll revealing him as of the least-liked politicians in the country. His new approach seems to be an effort to restore his ailing image.
Gingrich has vowed, again, to stay positive.
His stump speech his become markedly consistent for a candidate who spent months delivering rambling speeches that frequently meandered into a series of random topics. He has stopped mentioning the other candidates almost entirely in his speeches.
Instead, he’s decided to focus on a handful of policy issues, zeroing in on religious liberties and energy. He opened Wednesday’s debate by using a moment meant for an introduction to start hammering his energy position and then later told supporter he will continue that focus.
“I’ve got to get my messages through much more efficiently than [Romney] does,” Gingrich told supporters at a post-debate party. “I’ve got to focus on one theme and I need your help getting it across.”
While Santorum and Romney battled over earmarks and endorsements, Gingrich stayed mostly silent. And even given a chance to lash out at his opponents on immigration, Gingrich took a pass and talked up his own positions.
He didn’t, however, decline to beat up on his favorite target: the media.
“I just want to point out, you did not once in the 2008 campaign, not once did anybody in the elite media ask why Barack Obama voted in favor of legalizing infanticide. Okay? So let’s be clear here,” Gingrich said in response to a question about birth control. “If we’re going to have a debate about who the extremist is on these issues, it is President Obama who, as a state senator, voted to protect doctors who killed babies who survived the abortion. It is not the Republicans.”