Still standing, Gingrich uses debates to remain a factor

Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks at a town hall meeting sponsored by the East Side Tea Party of Orlando and the Central Florida Tea Party Council, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2011, in Orlando, Fla. AP Photo/John Raoux

AP Photo/John Raoux

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

A funny thing happened on the way to the widely expected demise of Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign. Instead of fading into irrelevance, the former House speaker is still hanging around and leaving his mark on the GOP race.

More than three months after his entire team of senior advisers resigned en masse, citing disagreements with the candidate on strategy and his level of commitment to the campaign trail grind, Gingrich still struggles for attention from the media, which sees him as little more than an afterthought in the broader narrative.

Though Gingrich has not exactly surged in the polls, he has been in fourth place among the declared GOP candidates in the last several national surveys and has been trending upward in the RealClearPolitics polling average. And while he at first struggled to convey a rationale for his candidacy, Gingrich has won increasingly boisterous applause at the Republican debates, which have provided a forum to show off both his cerebral approach and his reflexive disdain for the national media.

In aggressively challenging the approach taken by debate hosts ranging from Fox News to MSNBC, Gingrich has positioned himself as the voice of the besieged, and that has won him some accolades among the Republican rank and file.

During the MSNBC/Politico debate in California earlier this month, Gingrich received one of the best audience responses of any GOP candidate so far when he challenged the premise of moderator John Harris' question that sought to pit Mitt Romney and Rick Perry's records on health care against one another.

"I'm frankly not interested in your effort to get Republicans fighting each other," Gingrich said before upping the theatrics by wagging his finger in Harris' direction. "And I hope all of my friends up here are going to repudiate every effort of the news media to get Republicans to fight each other to protect Barack Obama, who deserves to be defeated. All of us are committed as a team, whoever the nominee is, we are all for defeating Barack Obama."

In an interview with Sean Hannity last week, Gingrich said that his inspiration for acting as the intra-party defender was the book "Team of Rivals" -- Doris Kearns Goodwin's oft-praised tome about the political adversaries of Abraham Lincoln who became Cabinet secretaries in the 16th president's administration.

"I think we're in a similar place," Gingrich told Hannity. "I think to truly change Washington as much as we need to, we're going to need everybody, and we're going to need each of them in their own unique way, and we're going to need them doing something that they're very good at."

After running a centralized, bare-bones operation out of its Northern Virginia headquarters, Gingrich's campaign is set to branch out and expand where it matters. Aides plan to open offices in Iowa and New Hampshire in mid-October and will move field staffers to both early voting states.

The campaign says that it has been inundated with encouragement and offers of support on the heels of the candidate's recent debate performances. And after spending time last month in states such as Hawaii and California, which are known more for their desirable climates than their impact on the early GOP nominating fight, Gingrich made his first visit to Iowa in over a month on Monday. The campaign promises that he will return frequently in the coming months.

"We continue to have a functional operation that was able to operate more effectively and efficiently financially," said Gingrich spokesperson R.C. Hammond. "Through the debate successes, we've seen spikes in volunteers and donations, so the resources exist for the campaign to function quite nicely."

Longtime Republican media consultant Lionel Sosa has been brought on to help with outreach to the Hispanic community and has also been tasked with the less visible but more pressing role of advising the stern and professorial Gingrich on how to come across as more likable to voters.

As the GOP candidates prepare to share a debate stage once again in Orlando on Thursday night, Gingrich has no plans to veer from his strategy of contrasting his own vision with President Obama's, while taking pains to compliment the competitors from whom he must distinguish himself if he has any hope of taking off down the stretch.

"The contrast that Newt wants the American people to see is his capacity and record as a leader versus Barack Obama's capacity as a leader," Hammond said. "He will show the American people, 'I've led at a time when you've had to have one end of the government working with the other end of government. You couldn't just speak from the bully pulpit. You had to go to the other side and figure out how to do it.' "

Given his campaign's widely reported money woes, its lack of discernible traction in the early voting states, and the daunting task of breaking through in what has quickly become a two-candidate race in the eyes of many, the front-runners do not at the moment have reason to fear Gingrich overtaking them.

But there are still about four months until the first votes are cast, and the former House speaker appears unlikely to bow out anytime soon. In a race that remains fluid, Gingrich has already surprised the pundits he so loves to hate by remaining a major presence in debates and refusing to go away quietly.

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Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News..

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.

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