Newt Gingrich’s biggest sparring partners at Republican primary debate weren’t even on stage. They were the ones asking the questions.
The former House speaker went after Fox News debate moderators Chris Wallace and Bret Baier with straight-talking zeal, accusing them of undermining a substantive presidential forum with sensational questions. Gingrich has griped about the media and the way he’s been covered for months, but Thursday night gave him his broadest forum yet to attack media coverage — always a favorite for the conservative base — and the most rave reviews he’s gotten since launching his campaign.
He started in with his very first answer, rebuffing a question from Wallace about his mass exodus of campaign staffers in June by delivering a laundry list of complaints.
“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,’ Gingrich said to cheers and applause.
He added, “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.”
Wallace tried to pin Gingrich on being responsible for his record, but the crowd booed. Cheers went up again when Gingrich shot back, “I think that there’s too much attention paid by the press corps about the campaign minutiae and not enough paid by the press corps to the basic ideas that distinguish us from Barack Obama.”
Later when Baier pressed Gingrich about his vacillating stance on military intervention in Libya, Gingrich returned to his attack, saying, “This is a good example of a gotcha question.”
After explaining that he was simply responding to President Barack Obama’s own wavering response, Gingrich took a direct shot at the network where he was a paid contributor until starting his White House run: “The fact that I was commenting on Fox about a president who changes his opinion every other day ought to be covered by a Fox commentator using all the things I said, not hand-picking the ones that fit your premise.”
In the post-debate spin zone, political consultants proclaimed that Gingrich had won the battle, both through tapping into popular frustrations with the media and seizing an opportunity to distinguish himself as the candidate of ideas in a visceral way.
“He took on the media tonight which is something that everyone watching this debate said, ‘Hooray, go for it,’” said GOP strategist Frank Luntz, noting his attack-dog style got the biggest applause of the evening.
Democratic strategist Joe Trippi said it was reminiscent of Walter Mondale’s “Where’s the beef?” moment in his 1984 debate against Gary Hart. “It reminded me a little of ‘I paid for this microphone,’” said Fox News host Sean Hannity, referring to Ronald Reagan’s famed Nashua debate outburst in 1980.
Seeking to capitalize on the moment, Gingrich led his fundraising appeal Friday morning with a reference to it, writing, “It’s time to stand up to the media’s small-minded gotcha questions, and focus on the issues that matter to Americans in this time of crisis.”
But he’s been hitting the anti-media theme for almost as long as he’s been running.
His campaign got off to a rocky start when, in a “Meet the Press” interview, he remarked that Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan was akin to “right-wing social engineering.” Trying to extinguish the firestorm, he told conservative radio host Bob Gallagher the “gotcha press” had “took dramatically out of context what I said.”
Later on a conference call with conservative bloggers, he blamed host David Gregory.
“I didn’t go in there quite hostile enough, because it didn’t occur to me going in that you’d have a series of setups,” he told them. “This wasn’t me randomly saying things. These were very deliberate efforts to pick fights.”
Not long after, he attacked Fox News host Greta Van Sustern for even posing a question about his much-discussed spending at Tiffany & Co.
“I’m perfectly happy to talk about what we need to do for America and what we need to do help Americans,” he told her. “But I frankly don’t want to play the gotcha games in Washington, and I’m just not going to participate.”
Then in June, he rebuffed an ABC News report about questionable cash transfers between a Gingrich charity and one of his for-profit companies by again lashing out at the press.
“The elite media has correctly figured out that I am a direct threat to their Washington values, and their Washington power structure. And they’ve decided that since they can’t beat my message, they’ll just try to destroy the messenger,” he responded in an interview with radio host Neal Boortz.
After his top staffers walked out on his campaign, Gingrich continued to hound reporters. “If you look at the news media coverage, the elite media went out of their way for seven or eight weeks to attack me,” Gingrich recently told a Georgia newspaper.
At Maryland GOP’s annual Red, White and Blue Dinner, a reporter asked about his biggest regret of the campaign. “Not getting the press to cover substantive issues,” he said.
Finally, last last week he blamed the media for his inability to compete in the straw poll, saying negative reports had dampened his fundraising efforts. He pleaded with Iowa’s Linn County Republicans to help him rebuild a campaign that has been “savaged” by the “elite media.”
“I am running in part because I think substance outlasts gossip, but I need your help,” he told them.
And though Thursday night was the first time he attacked the debate from the podium, it wasn’t the first time he complained about one.
He was visibly displeased with the “this or that” lightning round at CNN’s New Hampshire debate, but didn’t speak up about it until a Google Plus video conference later in the campaign.
“This is the junk you want us to waste time on?” he said. “They have a desperate need to trivialize the presidency of the United States.”
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