In this balkanized media landscape, presidential campaigns have placed a premium on creating viral moments. A simple tweet or Instagram post from Donald Trump can net a day's worth of coverage for minimal -- if any -- costs.
But for Trump and other candidates, some of the best opportunities to create these moments has come from the seemingly countless number of televised debates. It was during the Republican debates that Trump was able to effectively vanquish former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, once the top establishment candidate. In what may turn out to be the most pivotal moment of the primaries, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie halted whatever momentum Florida Sen. Marco Rubio had by calling out his robotic responses to attacks.
Debates can make or break candidates. And in the case of Newt Gingrich, who was a particularly strong debater, they can salvage a floundering campaign. As the former House speaker told the "Candidate Confessional" podcast: “The debates were clearly the key to my survival."
Gingrich certainly had to survive a lot. Shortly after he announced his run for the presidency in 2012, his campaign staff quit en masse over philosophical differences and his decision to take a cruise of the Greek islands instead of begging for votes at an Iowa rotary club.
"We took a huge detour, ran into a brick wall and fell into a swamp," Gingrich said of his campaign launch.
But over the course of the fall of 2011 and winter of 2012, Gingrich gradually climbed back up in the polls. And he briefly overtook Mitt Romney, winning a resounding victory in the South Carolina primary on the strength of his theatrical debate performances.
On the podcast, Gingrich offered up his secret recipe for success in these formats. The key, he explained, was good timing and to read the mood of the crowd. “It is like being a jazz musician. So, you and the audience are in the same zone," he explained. “It’s almost a Zen. You relax totally. You absorb the question. You feel the audience environment. And then you intuit what you should say.”
Once you have a rhythm, Gingrich added, you know when to pounce and, more importantly, when not to. “You want to hit one or two home runs a night," he explained. "You don’t want to try and hit 16.”
Few candidates had as many viral moments. There was the time in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, when Gingrich lectured (condescendingly, one may argue) Juan Williams for asking whether his criticism of food stamp recipients was racially insensitive. And there was the time when Gingrich admonished CNN's John King for having the temerity to ask him -- at the top of the debate -- about the uncomfortable circumstances of his separation from his second wife.
“It wasn’t as satisfying [as the Williams episode] but it was actually unbelievable," Gingrich said. "The audience decided instantaneously they were with me and therefore they were against him."
Over the course of that campaign, Gingrich discovered that -- surprise -- conservatives like a candidate willing to bash the media, even Fox News. So he happily obliged.
Trump is the grizzly bear in ‘The Revenant.’ When you hit him, he devours you. He can’t help himself. Newt Gingrich
Trump, Gingrich said, has adopted that approach but brought it to a ferocious, almost uncomfortable new level.
“These debates are totally different," Gingrich said. "You need to understand that Trump is the grizzly bear in ‘The Revenant.’ When you hit him, he devours you. He can’t help himself. And so, he creates an environment unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”
So what would Newt do about the voracious real estate billionaire? He pointed to his right, and replied: “I’d say, beat him up!”
Listen to the podcast above, or download it on iTunes. And while you're there, please subscribe to, rate and review our show. Make sure to tune in to next week's episode, when our guest will be the man who lost to Rob Ford -- yes, that Rob Ford -- for a seat on the Toronto City Council.
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