Gingrich plays role of anti-Romney superhero

Republican presidential candidate former House Speaker Newt Gingrich reacts to a question at the start of the Republican presidential candidate debate at the North Charleston Coliseum in Charleston, S.C., Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012. AP Photo/David Goldman

Republican presidential candidate former House Speaker Newt Gingrich
Newt Gingrich reacts to a question at the start of the GOP debate at the North Charleston Coliseum in Charleston, S.C., Jan. 19, 2012.
AP Photo/David Goldman

This commentary was written by CBSNews.com Editor-in-Chief Dan Farber.

As the GOP field thins out, Newt Gingrich's powers are growing. He has become a kind of superhero for the anti-Mitt Romney branch of the Republican party, taking the fight to Romney -- who he paints as a faux conservative and "exploitive," "looter" businessman -- and fighting to save America from the "socialist" president and the evil press.

In superhero mode on the debate stage, Gingrich becomes a verbal machine-gun, vehemently defending his record in Washington, attacking the press for questioning his character, belittling his opponents' ideas, displaying his disdain for those who fail to grasp his brilliance and espousing what he calls his "aggressive leadership." 

It's not atypical of political campaigning, but Gingrich brings his inner fire-breathing dragon and precision targeting to the task. The more he is attacked, the stronger and more forceful he becomes.

Rick Perry dropped out of the race and succumbed to Gingrich's superpower. He recognized that his attempt to be the conservative alternative Mitt Romney (who Gingrich has labeled the "Massachusetts moderate") was failing and then gave his unbridled endorsement to the former House speaker.

This is the Rick Perry who in a December debate responded to a question about import of a candidate's character and infidelity as follows:

"Individuals who have been in fidelity with their spouse, I think that sends a very powerful message. If you will cheat on your wife, if you will cheat on your spouse, then why wouldn't you cheat on your business partner? Or why wouldn't you cheat on anybody for that matter?"

For Perry, Romney is an unpalatable choice, and there is no love lost between the two. The Texas governor found it in his heart to forgive the surging speaker. As he suspended his campaign on Thursday in Charleston, S.C., Perry said: "We've had our differences, which campaigns will inevitably have, and Newt is not perfect, but who among us is?"

South Carolina GOP debate: Winners and Losers

"The fact is, there is forgiveness for those who seek God, and I believe in the power of redemption," he continued. "I have no question Newt has the heart of a conservative reformer."

Speaking in Buford, S.C. following the Perry endorsement, Gingrich -- who spent decades as a legislator and consultant in Washington -- explained what it means to be a conservative reformer. He boasted that the 535 members of Congress and their staffs are not smart enough to fix Washington, but he is, with the help of the American "citizenry."

Gingrich prides himself on being a man of ideas and a visionary. He has stated that he is the longest-serving teacher in the senior military, instructing one- and two-star generals and admirals the art of war. But his detractors label him as unstable.

"Grandiosity has never been a problem with Newt Gingrich," former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum said during the debate Thursday. "He -- he handles it very, very well. I don't want a nominee that I have to worry about going out and looking at the paper the next day and figuring out what is he -- worrying about what he's going to say next." 

Gingrich responded, "I spent 16 years on a grandiose project called creating a Republican majority in the House....You're right, I think grandiose thoughts. This is a grandiose country of big people doing big things. And we need leadership prepared to take on big projects."

"I think, long before Rick came to Congress, I was busy being a rebel, creating the Conservative Opportunity Society, developing a plan to win a majority in the Congress," he added.

If the rebel, grandiose thinker Gingrich's measure of success is winning a majority in Congress, then it sounds like the same old politics of "I win, you lose" that has put the current Congress' job approval rating at a record low of 13 percent. This is the former House speaker who was leading the impeachment of President Bill Clinton on charges of lying in court about his own extramarital affair while he was having an extramarital affair.

Gingrich didn't quite extinguish the character issues with his attacking the questions about his marriages and the questioners in the CNN debate Thursday, but he didn't implode as some predicted. Now it's up to the voters of South Carolina to decide whether Gingrich is the rebel with the cause that suits them.

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    Dan has more than 20 years of journalism experience. He has served as editor in chief of CBSNews.com, CNET News, ZDNet, PC Week, and MacWeek.

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