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Newt in New Hampshire: Pugilist or Professor?

8:10 AM, Jan 5, 2012 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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Laconia, N.H.
There are two Newt Gingriches campaigning here in New Hampshire. The first is the Gingrich that’s got everybody talking—the fourth-place finisher in Iowa, who is itching for a brawl with Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, and anyone else armed with a super PAC. At a meeting with the press in this idyllic town near Lake Winnipesaukee, Gingrich can hardly contain himself when he describes the primary election as a “clear contrast between a Goldwater-Reagan conservative and a Massachusetts moderate.”

Newt Gingrich

This Gingrich uses every opportunity to call Romney a “Massachusetts moderate,” which he does in a speech to this crowd in Laconia, in a policy-heavy discussion at St. Anselm College in Goffstown, and in his live interview Wednesday evening with Fox News’s Greta van Susteren. The alliterative appellation is the thread in the campaign’s new strategy to tie together every conservative unorthodoxy Romney has ever said on abortion, tax policy, and any other issue possible. More than once Gingrich begins a sentence by saying, “Mitt Romney, who is a Massachusetts moderate…”

I ask Gingrich why it has taken so long for him and the other Republican candidates to take on Romney, since he’s been perceived as the front-runner for so many months. “He hasn’t been the front-runner, except in your mind,” Gingrich snaps back. “I’ve been the front-runner recently. Herman Cain was the front-runner before me.”

A few hours later at St. Anselm College, however, we see a second Gingrich on display, distinct from the no-nonsense, pugnacious Newt everyone expects to see over the next week. This Gingrich is a little more familiar. He's thoughtful and intellectual, even professorial.

At St. Anselm's New Hampshire Institute of Politics, Gingrich has a wonky conversation with Charlie Arlinghouse of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank. A large crowd of over 150 fills the room. A good quarter of the hour-long event is devoted to talking about runaway government spending on entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

“You currently have a government monopoly [in Medicare],” Gingrich says. “The best, safest way politically to move away from that monopoly is to create the right to choose, but not to force people out of the system.”

He praises the Ron Wyden-Paul Ryan Medicare reforms as a better plan than the original plan outlined in the House-passed budget. “I think if you try to force people out of the system, they will get very upset,” Gingrich says. “If you give them the right to choose to come out of the system, you might be surprised how many choose [to do so].”

Like many of the topics Gingrich and Arlinghouse are discussing, the question of Medicare’s future is an important issue with major long-term implications for the fiscal health of the federal government and the prosperity of the United States over the next generations. But the whole conversation is, frankly, incredibly boring and, for those journalists hoping to hear more fuel for the Romney-Gingrich fire, a bit disappointing. A local reporter sitting to my right scribbles a note for me: “Who’s going to ask a question about Iowa???” Some of the residents who came to see a possible future president are shifting in their chairs or looking at their watches. Two young girls sitting next to their father have even stopped pretending to listen and are giggling about something that, I imagine, has nothing to do with supply-side economics or the threat of a nuclear Iran. 

Does this signal the return of Professor Gingrich? Perhaps, but it doesn't seem to last very long. Later that evening, he gets his dig in within the first minute on van Susteren’s Fox News program: “The most we’re going to do is draw a direct and sharp contrast with Governor Romney, who is a Massachusetts moderate.” 

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