What do you do when you're a presidential candidate like Newt Gingrich who lugs so much baggage that your baggage has baggage? That's easy. You reach up your sleeve and -- play the umbrage card. You fume and fuss with outrage over the question and hope no one demands an answer.
Campaigns bring out the best and worst in candidates. Gingrich at his best is an excellent debater. He thinks on his feet, dazzles with obscure historical fact nuggets and skillfully connects with friendly crowds. At his worst, he's a demagogue, a bully and serial exaggerator, especially when sticky questions put his back up against a wall.
For those avenues to his victory in South Carolina's pivotal Republican primary, Gingrich can thank the mainstream media that he loves to bash. They provided two convenient punching bags: CNN's John King and Fox News' Juan Williams.
Moderator King opened a debate in North Charleston by offering Gingrich a chance to respond to claims by his second wife that he asked for an "open marriage" before they split. Gingrich responded by ripping into King and "the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media that makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office." As the crowd roared its approval of Gingrich, a visibly shaken King tried to defend his question. But amid boos from the crowd and angry scolds from the "decent" Gingrich, it was useless.
Funny but I don't recall Gingrich complaining about "negative" news media when ABC's Brian Ross, the reporter who interviewed his ex-wife, broke the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. story four years ago. Nor do I recall his complaining about attracting "decent people" to run for office as he pushed for President Bill Clinton's impeachment during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
But that's the joy of the umbrage card. If the facts are against you, attack the media. Show enough outrage and nobody calls you on your hypocrisy.
Such was the case a few nights earlier in a Myrtle Beach, S.C., debate, when Juan Williams challenged Gingrich's well-known comments that poor kids should be employed as school janitors, that Obama was a "food stamp president" and that black Americans "should demand paychecks instead of food stamps." Were such statements not "at a minimum insulting?" Williams asked.
Gingrich said no, bringing cheers and applause from the audience for his often-repeated claim that "more people have been put on food stamps under Barack Obama than any other president in history." That exchange brought a standing ovation from the crowd and congratulations from at least one woman at a later South Carolina campaign stop "for putting Mr. Juan Williams in his place."
Yet Gingrich's food stamp claim is misleading on several counts. For one, food stamp recipients increased during seven of President George W. Bush's eight years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The growth came largely because of policy changes that encouraged more participation by eligible Americans. But Gingrich is not about to let details get in the way of a chance to sound offended.
During a South Carolina town hall meeting, a man said he wanted Gingrich to "bloody Obama's nose." Gingrich responded, "I don't want to bloody his nose, I want to knock him out." Yes, the man knows his audience.
And that's Mitt Romney's big challenge. The former Massachusetts governor has improved his debate skills, but shows visible discomfort at the attack-dog style at which Gingrich excels. Considering the Grand Old Party's need to win moderate swing voters in November, Romney has to sell a difficult message: Gingrich might be a fun date for now, but they really don't want to marry him.