Newt Gingrich is a terrific debater, and on the surface it would seem that he won the debate last night, within the first 3 minutes with his response to John King's opening question. Fair enough. Although each candidate had their moment(s) to shine. Mitt Romney even provided a couple of good answers himself. Good in the sense that they sounded more genuine than they did car salesman, as he often does (to me at least). Whether Gingrich actually won or not, there's an observation to be made about his debating style that could prove to be a weakness in the long run.
Here's the moment everyone will be talking about (I've included the HuffPo version to show the question, and the CNN version which is less edited to include the standing ovation Gingrich got for his answer);
Here's the CNN coverage (including the point that his two daughters complained to ABC that the report they intended to air was wrong).
Incidentally, CNN labels the video with the phrase 'lashes out'. CBS labels their version 'slams CNN'. See what editorializing can do to the spin on a story, even in the title? CNN tries to paint Newt as unstable or vicious or some other unpleasant adjective. CBS, no fan of CNN or Newt, makes it seem more like his response was indeed to an unfair question.
Newt Gingrich has command of the facts in debates and his confidence shows it. But whether it is in response to questions like the one above, or it is something that comes up uninvited, attacking the press is part of Newt's wheelhouse. His attacks of the press are effective in that he gains support in the primaries by attacking the press instead of his opponents.
That formula worked during his rise to the top of the polling in late November. That formula, combined with this latest debate might help put him over the top in South Carolina. In fact, it might help carry him all the way to the nomination. The problem is that he may go to that line of answers once too often. Attacking the press is not a solution to the nation's woes. Gingrich knows that and he has some great ideas about what to do. But staying too focused on the press more than necessary contains in it two inherent dangers;
(1) The whole approach will wear thin with the public if it is over-used. How much might that be? I don't know. President Obama wore the rock star persona throughout the entire election cycle and got away with a lot because of it. Gingrich is no rock star to the left or to most people on the right either. Neither is he a press darling. His approach won't work for all of 2012, especially if the press sees him as an enemy and starts spinning his attacks as vindictive, irrational, tangential or in some other unflattering way.
(2) Which brings us to the second danger. Both Democrats and liberal-leaning mainstream media will have time to adjust to the approach by Gingrich if he continues on to the general election to face Obama. Using the same formula for success from your wheel house for too long allows your opponent time to develop an effective counter tactic. If the media know Newt is going to attack them, they can set up their questions in anticipation of that eventuality in such a way as to make Gingrich look spiteful, or one dimensional (i.e. too focused on them) or even to play into point one and make the public grow weary of his constant harping on the media instead of focusing on the country. If they set up every question as Newt-bait, they might well succeed in achieving that outcome.
For what it's worth, I think this debate may help cinch the South Carolina primary for Gingrich. But long term, I think he has to switch gears back to his positive message for America before too long or he'll sink again. There were several glimpses of that positivism before his initial surge to the lead, when the other GOP contenders tried to turn out the bad Newt instead of the good Newt that was finding success.