01/20/2012 03:10 pm ET Updated Mar 21, 2012

What Gingrich Learned From Reagan's Playbook: Go After the Moderators

One of the highlights of Thursday's Republican debate in South Carolina -- and a moment that the audience found particularly exhilarating -- was Newt Gingrich's lambasting of debate moderator John King for leading off the proceedings by asking a personal question about Gingrich's marriage, specifically the charge that Newt had once suggested that he and his wife have an open marriage.

Newt reacted with self-righteous indignation. "The destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that," he said forcefully.

It was, and is, a great sound bite.

Going after debate moderators -- Chris Wallace and Juan Williams also suffered Gingrich's verbal attacks -- seems to have become a key element of Newt's debating style. Arguably, it has also contributed to his rise in the polls. Nothing else about Newt has changed.

So why is he doing it? Is he really angry or is he just posturing?

For one thing, Newt's anger deflects the question. He doesn't have to answer it. His rage drowns out the issue. It never comes up again. By belittling the moderator, he makes the question appear trivial and not worthy of an answer.

For another, it plays to the audience. Republicans like to think that the media is controlled by liberals. Yet Fox News has much higher ratings than MSNBC and the "liberal media" has gone after John Edwards and other Democrats, including President Obama, with comparable vigor. Then there's Rush Limbaugh who commands an enormous audience.

That might be part of it, but Gingrich's strategy really comes from Ronald Reagan's playbook.

Back in 1980, Republican candidate Ronald Reagan paid the expenses for a New Hampshire primary debate. When the debate moderator tried to have the microphone turned off during Reagan's opening statement, Reagan became incensed and said, "I am paying for this microphone!"

It was a powerful performance and resulted in a popular sound bite that gave audiences the impression that the candidate was a forceful leader who could stand up to injustice. Following the exchange, Reagan's poll numbers jumped. Later, Reagan said of the incident: "I may have won the debate, the primary and the nomination right there."

The question is, will it work for Newt?