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Have Newt’s Rivals Been Paying Attention?

Lacking money and organization, and under a heavy barrage of negative advertising, Newt Gingrich’s poll numbers are coming back down to earth. But it would be a mistake to treat Gingrich’s candidacy with the same dismissal as those of the “bubble” candidates who preceded the former Speaker. There is much Gingrich’s opponents can learn from him.

In his brief time in the spotlight, Gingrich exhibited three attributes that helped advance his candidacy and which the other candidates lack.

The first was demonstrated in the following exchange Gingrich had with Fox’s Chris Wallace during a debate in August:

WALLACE:  Thank you.  Speaker Gingrich, one of the ways that we judge a candidate is the campaign they run. In June, almost your entire national campaign staff resigned, along with your staff here in Iowa. They said that you were undisciplined in campaigning and fundraising, and at last report, you’re a million dollars in debt. How do you respond to people who say that your campaign has been a mess so far?

GINGRICH:  Well, let me say, first of all, Chris, that I took seriously Bret’s injunction to put aside the talking points, and I wish you would put aside the gotcha questions. (APPLAUSE)….

Congress should come back Monday. They should repeal the Dodd-Frank bill. They should repeal Sarbanes-Oxley. They should repeal Obamacare. They should institute Lean Six Sigma across the entire federal government, a hard idea for Washington reporters to cover, but an important idea, because it’s the key to American manufacturing success.

I’d love to see the rest of tonight’s debate asking us about what we would do to lead an America whose president has failed to lead, instead of playing Mickey Mouse games. (APPLAUSE)

That is how Gingrich controlled the dialogue on his terms. He effectively established the boundaries of serious discussion around his comfort zone, and invited the media to join him there. Then he offered up a red meat response to the question as he reframed it. Once he won the exchange, he reminded the media they can expect to be called out on their silliness and hypocrisy the rest of the way, to nudge them toward asking questions that won’t get them humiliated on national TV with a live studio audience cheering it on.

Obviously, this doesn’t work in all situations, and it can get old. But Gingrich was smart enough to know when to deploy the tactic, and he built his comeback on these exchanges. The other candidates may be sensitive to looking like a jerk (an admirable sensitivity), but neither should they fear coloring outside the lines as the press seeks to define both the candidates and the narrative.

The second aspect of Gingrich’s strategy that proved effective has been his insistence on using his time to criticize President Obama. The candidates will need to contrast themselves with their rivals in order to win the nomination, and they will be forgiven for doing so. But it’s doubtful they will win over a nervous public if they fail to present a clear enough contrast with the president.

The third one–and this is fraught with tripwires–is Gingrich’s astounding self-confidence. It gets him in trouble, but it’s also what made him believe the Republican party could, under his leadership, take back the House after 40 years in the minority. Gingrich’s 2012 campaign is predicated on a “scorched Washington” mentality; no federal institution, apparently, is safe. He can reform it all.

What makes this effective is that, for Gingrich, people actually believe it. To some, this makes him far too risky; to others, this makes him compelling. To his supporters, he is the candidate of refreshing honesty. To his detractors, he has become the Pop Rocks and Coke candidate.

Last week, Daniel Henninger wrote that Gingrich will either best Romney for the nomination, in which case the idea that Romney was capable of defeating Obama becomes less plausible anyway, or he will toughen Romney up and sharpen his reflexes. Henninger even raises the comparison to Rocky, a flawed but plucky and durable contender insisting he has a shot at the title.

Whichever way it goes, Gingrich will have left his mark on this year’s crop of aspiring Republican leaders. The question is: when the perpetual professor was teaching them a lesson, were they listening?



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