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C. Fraser Smith: Newt’s defense turns the tables

Thus began one of the most spectacular recent examples of ducking the question in the history of American politics.

And one of the most effective, given the audience’s boisterous applause.

The result may have surprised even Gingrich, who rode the resulting momentum to a dozen-percentage-point win in the South Carolina primary.

It turned out to be as close to a permanently defining moment as this extraordinarily volatile campaign has produced. Suddenly, Gingrich seemed to have laid bare a powerful two-part theme that could move him to the top of his class and keep him there.

The stratagem was not his based on his ideas or his money or his organization. It was his focus on the “elite media” — whose members were, he said, carrying water for President Obama. That outraged assertion drew the loud applause.

Here was Gingrich asserting his claim to be the man most likely to get the better of Obama in a debate. Gingrich would offer himself as the unrestrained junkyard dog.

The Nightline interview

And where had it all begun?

As many if not most of us know by now, Gingrich’s second wife had reported in a Nightline interview that he had wanted an “open marriage.”

Moderator John King of CNN asked Gingrich if he wanted to respond. The offer seemed altogether pertinent for any venue but especially so in South Carolina, where more than 60 percent of the voters are Evangelicals — people who have made “family values” at least as important in their decision-making as the economy or foreign affairs.

So it would have been “astounding” — to borrow Mr. Gingrich’s word — if the opportunity to respond had not been offered.

Imagine the reaction from Republicans — or voters of any persuasion — if no one had asked Bill Clinton about his various alleged liaisons. And wasn’t the same “elite” media asking those questions now?

And yet the Gingrich thrust seemed to work. It seemed to give his campaign powerful momentum. He was fusing ambient antipathy toward the press with dislike of Obama, a potent chemistry for him.

Of all the verbiage expended during this most extraordinary campaign season, that linkage may have had the most dramatic effect. It may have made him into the candidate Republicans had been yearning for as they sorted through one front-runner after another.

A Lazarus moment

This exchange made lots of news, of course. It was a Lazarus moment for Gingrich, who had been left for dead twice. It seems to have earned him another $5 million in campaign funds. And it suggested the depth of the antipathy of Southern voters for Mr. Obama.

It is, of course, foolhardy to suggest that any move is fundamentally transforming in this season of serial front-runners. Mitt Romney, bestirred to a more assertive posture by Gingrich’s surge, seems to have gotten back on his game in Florida.

In a debate Monday evening, Romney seemed to put Gingrich on the defensive — presenting himself as tougher and more disciplined.

Still, with Gingrich on his high horse, the press-bashing is likely to continue.

One news executive told The New York Times that moderators and reporters had to be prepared “to push back or you’re going to be the dog bone.”

An experienced political player like Gingrich knows he can go after reporters with total impunity. The last thing reporters want is to become part of the story. They’re on the stage to ask questions, not to respond to a candidate’s criticisms.

It’s not fun, but most of us have faced that sort of thing enough to shrug off what seems a tired, transparent ploy.

A candidate can run, but he can’t hide. Not forever, anyway.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears in The Daily Record Fridays. His email address is [email protected]