Newt Gets It Done in Last Night's Debate...Now they are calling him Nuke Zingrich...
Newt Gingrich walks tall in South Carolina debate
By JONATHAN MARTIN and ALEXANDER BURNS | 1/20/12 4:32 AM EST
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. – The final debate before the South Carolina primary brought into sharp relief why Newt Gingrich is re-emerging as a contender and Mitt Romney is stumbling toward the finish line.
With a rousing denunciation of the news media right out of the gate, Gingrich electrified the conservative audience here and temporarily defused an issue that poses a lethal threat to his campaign. Then he deftly portrayed his “grandiose” persona as nothing less than fully American. He also managed to tweak Romney with an act of strategic showmanship: recognizing Romney’s unease about releasing his income tax returns, the former House speaker released his own during the debate, baiting his rival into yet another painful episode about his wealth.
Romney, by comparison, worked his way through a series of halting answers on entirely predictable subjects, from his taxes to abortion to health care. All are issues he’s struggled with throughout the campaign, and it was never more evident than Thursday night that Romney hasn’t put them to rest – or even figured out how to speak about them comfortably.
The former Massachusetts governor’s awkwardness was underscored at every turn by Gingrich’s fluent, flamboyant performance. Already surging in South Carolina polls, the former speaker won his second standing ovation from a debate crowd in a week and put himself in a position to win Saturday’s primary with another impressive showing.
By twice castigating one of the right’s perennial bogeyman – the press — Gingrich made a gut-level connection with conservatives who think they get a raw deal from the news media.
His blistering response to CNN’s John King about the accusations lodged by Marianne Gingrich might even offer a short-term lift.
“Watch it help Newt,” predicted former South Carolina GOP chair Katon Dawson, speaking of the interview Gingrich’s former wife gave to ABC, likening the Marianne Gingrich’s claims to the unproven 2010 accusations that South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley conducted an extramarital affair. “It looked like they were picking on her.”
Romney officials know they’re dealing with a delicate topic that few party activists want to see them push – a top surrogate for the frontrunner said he “wasn’t permitted to say anything about that.”
But the former speaker’s rejuvenation isn’t only a matter of being viewed by conservatives as the latest victim of the press.
Just as he did when he first returned from the political grave last year, Gingrich is finding his voice by appealing to the mad-as-hell wing of the GOP that has been searching for a candidate to match and articulate its anger.
“He does capture where the party is rhetorically,” said Republican strategist Jon Lerner, who is unaligned in the race. “But I don’t know if Saturday’s vote is tantamount to long-term success.”
“Newt’s Rocky Balboa – he doesn’t mind fighting,” added former Rep. Bob Livingston, a Gingrich adviser, after the debate.
Romney is probably never going to be likened to a brawler and, in the long run, that may serve him well. If he gets the nomination, he may be the one most able to make the general election a referendum on President Obama.
But for now the frontrunner’s sober, play-it-safe style is causing him trouble.
It’s not that Romney had any glaring stumbles at the CNN forum here. But there were repeats of the same awkward moments that have dogged his campaign of late.
Even though he was answering it at his second debate this week, Romney was less than articulate in responding to the question about when he’d release his income taxes. Asked if he’d follow his late father’s lead and release 12 years of returns, Romney blurted out: “Maybe.”
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-+reset Listen Trying to differentiate himself his private sector experience from Gingrich’s Washington longevity, the multi-millionaire former executive again raised eyebrows by stating he had “lived in the real streets of America.”
And, when asked what he regretted about the campaign, Romney said he would’ve preferred spending less time criticizing his rivals – even though his campaign is in the midst of a sustained assault against the former speaker and he had just minutes before mocked Gingrich for only appearing once in Ronald Reagan’s diaries.
Romney allies acknowledge that their candidate is not the most agile on the debate stage, or on the stump.
And they make a range of excuses for it: Moderators ask silly questions. There’s plenty of time left for him to connect on issues. Reeling off one-liners isn’t a qualification for the White House anyway.
Explaining Gingrich’s resurgence, former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu allowed: “He has hot rhetoric and conservatives like hot rhetoric.”
“I don’t think it’s [Romney’s] style and he would rather focus on the problem at hand, which is President Obama,” the Granite Stater continued. “I think we’d all like it more but I’m not sure it’d make him a better president.”
Recalling his own time as a pundit on CNN’s “Crossfire,” Sununu said: “I’d love to see him – you know, I told someone today, if the ability to reel those off is [important,] maybe Michael Kinsley and I should have run as the first bipartisan ticket in history.”
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, who endorsed Romney for president Thursday, said the former Massachusetts governor would have had an easier time connecting with the audience on his home turf – the economy – if the debate had devoted more time to that essential issue.
“If the questions had been more about it tonight, I think he would have had even more opportunities to say, ‘This is why this affects you, the kitchen-table issues you care about.’ You know, whether you’re going to be able to pay the kids’ education, whether you’re going to be able to pay the mortgage,” Portman said. “I thought the debate, frankly, didn’t talk about it enough.”
To his critics, though, Romney’s halting performances signal a deeper deficiency – not merely a short-term hurdle in the Republican primary, but rather a potential character flaw that could be aggravated in a long campaign.
Former national security adviser Bud McFarlane, a Gingrich adviser, suggested that Romney lacked the former House speaker’s “self-assurance” – a quality McFarlane said sprang from Gingrich’s “successes in getting something very important things done.”
“Romney’s never had that and I think in his heart, though he is a very polished speaker and knowledgeable on some things at the state level, there is a hidden self-doubt about whether I really know enough about how to do this,” McFarlane said.
He added: “Newt doesn’t suffer from that.”