Go big. Or go home.
For better or for worse, that style has defined former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s political career.
Two days before the first-in-the-South primary in South Carolina, which Gingrich conceded he had to win in order for him to be the nominee, Gingrich entered the CNN debate in Charleston riding a wave of momentum brought about by an endorsement from Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who withdrew from the race on Thursday before the debate, and supportive words from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who said if she were a South Carolinian, she would vote for Gingrich.
But, because of an interview ABC would air later that night with his second wife Marianne, Gingrich also had the feel of a surfer who could be wiped out at any moment.
Not knowing what footage ABC would air and well aware that he would be most likely be asked about the interview, Gingrich, whose candidacy may rest on how women voters in South Carolina’s “Bible belt” area feel about him, had two options: hedge against a potentially damaging interview, which would air after the debate was concluded, and soften his message or defiantly go “all in” on the attack, betting that ABC had nothing that was new or revelatory.
Gingrich chose the latter, more fiery approach. And when ABC’s “Nightline” aired the interview with Marianne, which was a rehash of everything she had previously said about Gingrich and his current wife, Callista, it was a dud, and Gingrich’s gamble paid off.
When CNN’s moderator, John King, led off the debate by asking Gingrich about allegations from his second wife, Marianne, that Gingrich had asked her for an “open relationship,” Gingrich defiantly looked at King and simply said, “No.”
He then said he would answer the question anyway.
“The destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office,” Gingrich said. “And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.”
Gingrich continued and said that for CNN “take an ex wife and make it, two days before the primary, a significant question of a presidential campaign is as close to despicable” a thing he had ever seen.
“I am frankly astounded that CNN would take trash like that and use it to open a presidential debate,” Gingrich unrelentingly continued.
The audience roared, but Gingrich wasn’t finished.
He said the allegations made by his ex-wife were demonstrably “false” and ripped into King and CNN for repeating the charges against him.
“I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans,” Gingrich said.
The audience, like they did in Monday’s debate in Myrtle Beach, gave him a standing and thunderous ovation.
“The audience reaction is something CNN should pay attention to,” Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said to reporters in the spin room after the debate.
But Gingrich’s defiance was risky. Had Marianne said something in the interview that aired later that was revelatory or damaging, Gingrich’s angry defiance would not have played well the next day, especially with women voters. It could have imploded his surging campaign.
But since ABC did not have anything new on Gingrich and the salacious parts of the interview had already leaked throughout the day, Gingrich’s defiant attack against CNN, the mainstream media, and the moderator will look even better on Friday.
On Thursday night, a poll conducted by Public Policy Polling had Gingrich leading Romney by six percentage points in South Carolina. If Gingrich can continue his upward trajectory in the polls and pull out a victory on Saturday, he may be able to further consolidate the conservative base and the anti-Romney voters behind him to give him more than a puncher’s chance at becoming the Republican nominee for president.
Fortune favors the bold. And boldness is something Gingrich has never lacked.