Newt Gingrich Shape-Shifts Through New Hampshire

He glides above the fray in the debate. He takes New Hampshire by storm. Lloyd Grove on how Gingrich is bending the race to his will.

12.16.11 12:36 PM ET

Newt Gingrich regularly reminds the crowds who show up at his campaign events: “This is not a game show. And it’s not reality TV. It’s reality.”

Reality, for Gingrich, is a malleable phenomenon—also, these days, a pretty astonishing one. It’s as if the 68-year-old former speaker of the House—a controversialist and self-described “revolutionary,” somewhat akin to the late Steve Jobs—exists in his own reality-distortion field. He has managed to convince himself—and others!—that  the imaginings of his brainpan can become the truth. And he has succeeded (for the moment, anyway) in bending political reality to the contours of his glorious visualization.

One night this week, Gingrich—who a mere three months ago was a blip in the polls and ready to drop out of the Republican presidential race—drew almost 1,000 New Hampshire residents to Windham High School, just south of Manchester. The audience was so big that some of the teenagers and adults present were arrayed behind him onstage—“This is very unnerving,” Gingrich quipped, “because I don’t know what kind of faces they’re making.” An overflow room was required so that late-comers could watch the putative frontrunner on a large-screen television.

Gingrich doesn’t look like your standard-issue presidential candidate. He’s certainly no Mitt Romney. With his halo of white hair and multiple chins, Gingrich is tipping the scales at an alarming girth. His rumpled blue suit (the outline of a pen visible where a more fashionable candidate might stuff a pocket square) clung to his bulk and rode up his body. He wore a lapel pin memorializing George Washington’s command flag at Valley Forge. And yet he took the stage with a sense of confidence and comfort, like a man strolling through his own front door.

Gingrich introduced his young wife, Callista, who shot up from her chair near the front, whirled around and waved—a sylphlike vision in Reagan red, smiling, her hair a bright gold helmet. He started to speak but promptly stopped himself to sneeze. “God bless you!” the crowd roared back. “This,” Gingrich noted dryly, ‘is clearly going to be a participatory group.” The crowd erupted in laughter.

He is, above all, a consummate entertainer. His performance skills are unrivaled on the political stage, and certainly more practiced than Barack Obama’s. (Even while taking incoming from rivals and interlocutors during Thursday night’s Fox News debate in Sioux City, Iowa, he never lost his love of the greasepaint.) He had the audience—many of them members of the Glenn Beck-inspired 9/12 Project, which organized the evening—eating out of his hand.

“Tomorrow morning,” he announced with a flourish, “I’ll release a letter to my staff, to any consultants and to any surrogates we have, indicating our determination to run a positive campaign, and also indicating that I will disown any super PAC that would in my name attack any of my friends who are running, and that I would publicly and solemnly urge people not to donate to them.”

One might be forgiven for marveling: how can Gingrich suddenly be the paragon of positivity—while Romney’s campaign, along with Ron Paul’s and Rick Perry’s, sprays a fusillade of negative ads, press releases and rude remarks, with Romney himself labeling Gingrich “zany” and his surrogates deploying insults like “unreliable,” “unfit,” and “irrational”? Gingrich’s above-the-fray stance comes as a shock to anyone who remembers the brassy, hyperambitious Georgia congressman of the 1980s and 1990s, when he raised the politics of personal destruction to an art form.

It was Gingrich, after all, who smeared the House Democratic majority as “blind to communism,” launched the crusade to bring down Speaker Jim Wright on minor ethics violations (“mindless cannibalism,” Wright called the endeavor in his resignation speech), and led House Republicans out of the wilderness and into the majority for the first time in 40 years.

“The reality is that Newt Gingrich had a theory,” House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer recalled last year, “and the theory was: What you have to do is confront. You have to accuse. You have to denigrate—so that the public comes to believe that the institution is broken, that it’s immoral … And therefore they will turn to us!”

Charmayne Marsh, who was Speaker Wright’s press secretary at the time of his downfall, can hardly believe that Wright’s tormentor is so popular. “I’m just stunned,” she said. “It’s incredible that he, of all people, with his history, has come this far. I guess the collective memory is just really short.”

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Earlier in the day, Gingrich was the soul of reason and erudition (well, almost) during a foreign-policy forum at St. Anselm’s College with rival candidate Jon Huntsman, the former governor of Utah and Obama’s ambassador to China. The decidedly untheatrical Huntsman made no effort to correct Gingrich when the latter—speaking with his usual authority and command presence—made various interesting assertions, such as his claim that a nuclear attack on Israel by Iran “would mean, for all practical purposes, virtually the end of Judaism.”

Before that, Gingrich pressed the flesh at a small-town pharmacy in Hollis, N.H. His motorcade of two black Chevy Suburbans traveled there with little consideration for speed limits and traffic lights: The Gingrich juggernaut is a law unto itself.

During a quick gaggle with the media in front of the pharmacy, he shape-shifted reality once again, appropriating the left-leaning populist arguments of Occupy Wall Street in order to counter Romney’s suggestion that he give back the $1.6 million he earned as a “historian” for Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored home mortgage behemoth.

“I love the way he and his consultant do these things,” Gingrich said with a smirk. “I would just say that if Governor Romney would like to give back all the money he’s earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years at Bain [Romney’s leveraged-buyout firm], then I would be glad to listen to him. And I’ll bet you $10, not $10,000, that he won’t take the offer.”

Gingrich started his day in Londonderry, speaking to several hundred workers assembled in the vast cafeteria of Insight Technology, a defense contractor that makes night-vision and precision targeting equipment for combat soldiers.  They listened raptly to his dreams of reforming the Pentagon (“I’m a hawk, but I’m a cheap hawk”), giving young people the option of personal Social Security accounts, shaking up the Federal Reserve and firing Ben Bernanke, and eliminating job-killing regulations.

“About two hours after the inaugural address, I’m going to sign somewhere between 100 and 200 executive orders and presidential findings,” Gingrich visualized. “About the time that President Obama lands in Chicago, we will have dismantled about 40 percent of his government.”

Laughter and applause. This was fun!

The piece de resistance was Gingrich’s crowd-pleasing riff on his plans to challenge Obama to a series of seven three-hour debates in the spirit of Lincoln-Douglas. First he told them how Abraham Lincoln—running for Senate in 1858 after a decade out of office (hmm, whom does that remind you of?)—pressured the incumbent, Stephen Douglas, into participating in the debates by trailing him around the state of Illinois and dominating the newspaper coverage with his rebuttals to Douglas’s speeches. So it will be with Obama, Gingrich predicted.

“And I’m going to concede in advance that he can use a Teleprompter if he wants to,” he added. “But you have to be fair. If you were trying to defend Obamacare, wouldn’t you want a Teleprompter?”

Big laugh here. Gingrich was killing it.

“People say he’ll never do it,” he declared. “I think there are three reasons he’ll agree to do it.”

One: Obama quoted Lincoln when he announced his presidential candidacy in Spingfield, Ill. Two: Ego. “The president is a Columbia and Harvard Law graduate. He was the editor of The Harvard Law Review. He is the best orator in the Democratic Party. How does he look in the mirror and say to himself, ‘I’m afraid to debate a teacher from West Georgia College’?” Three: just like Lincoln did to Douglas, Gingrich will dog Obama’s public appearances.

“If I end up as your nominee,” he said, “and the president has not yet accepted this offer … I will announce that night that wherever he goes, the White House will become my scheduler. And four hours after he speaks I will answer his speech every single place from that day on. And I would think in the age of mass media and blogs and talk radio and cable news, the White House won’t be able to take more than two or three weeks of that before they decide that it’s easier for us to debate.”

It’s impossible to miss that, in this fabulous scenario, Obama is Douglas, and Gingrich is Lincoln. His reality-distortion field was operating at maximum strength.