SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Newt Gingrich didn’t have a game-changing moment in Wednesday night’s Arizona debate.
But the former House speaker’s newest approach to the Republican presidential race — staying above the fray, avoiding attacks and focusing on the issues — proved to be a winner for him anyway.
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“Newt’s last two outings were disjointed and low-energy,” said Rick Wilson, a GOP strategist who is unaligned in the presidential race. “Tonight was markedly better.”
But Gingrich had more ground to make up than the other candidates in Wednesday’s debate. More than his GOP rivals, Gingrich has used his debate performances — often marked by scathing attacks on the media — as a springboard for jump-starting his erratic campaign. Many attributed Gingrich’s sole win this primary season in South Carolina to a confident performance in a pre-primary debate.
As his poll numbers have continued to dive, the debate was seen as one of Gingrich’s last opportunities to regain traction before Super Tuesday on March 6. The question is whether a good debate performance can translate into major momentum so late in the game, especially with Rick Santorum now challenging Mitt Romney for first place.
“He dealt himself back in the game with some of the Newt magic,” Wilson said.“But Newt doing well now comes out of Santorum’s numbers, not Mitt’s.”
Gingrich laughed and smiled during the debate, leaned back in his chair on several occasions and beamed when Romney gave him several pointed looks during his responses to questions. When asked to use one word to describe himself, Gingrich responded with: “Cheerful.”
“He looked relaxed and looked like he was having fun,” said Chip Saltsman, who was Mike Huckabee’s campaign manager in 2008. “Definitely in his element.”
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