- The Washington Times - Monday, December 12, 2011

Newt Gingrich has made a point of ridiculing the press during his presidential campaign, but he actually owes the media a debt of gratitude. Without the free coverage he has received, the money-challenged Gingrich campaign might never have gotten off the ground.

“Free media propelled Herman Cain from nowhere to somewhere and back again. And it resurrected Newt from the ashes,” said Mark McKinnon, vice chairman of Public Strategies Inc., who worked as a media adviser to the presidential candidacies of George W. Bush and John McCain.

Odds are, after stumbling badly out of the gate last summer, Mr. Gingrich would be swimming in a sea of red by now, as his last campaign finance report showed him nearly $1.2 million in debt.

But less than a month before the Iowa caucuses, with polls making him the GOP front-runner nationwide and in three of the first four contest states, the Gingrich campaign says it is raking in cash — roughly $4 million over the first half of the fourth quarter of the campaign filing period.

“There were days in August when we raised $10,000 overnight and we’d be very excited about it,” Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said in an interview this month. “Now we see $10,000 an hour.”

To get that cash spigot flowing, the Georgia Republican made himself a fixture on cable and broadcast television news networks and on the radio talk show circuit. He also took part in a dozen debates — including the nationally televised debate in Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday that attracted almost 7.6 million viewers, making it the most watched event so far of the presidential campaign season.

Newt Gingrich clearly has benefited from the free media,” said Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “He took what was an improbable candidacy to being a potential front-runner. He kind of proved himself, or started to remake himself, through this free exposure more than anything else.”

He also has been creative with his appearances, holding two Lincoln-Douglas-style “debates” with Mr. Cain and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. He is just one of two candidates to accept an invitation to a debate moderated by billionaire Donald Trump.

It’s a low-cost media strategy that is paying off big for the former House speaker, said Mo Elleithee, a Democratic campaign strategist.

“Presidential campaigns are the one campaign where most people actually get most of their information from free media or earned media, so it becomes increasingly important in a presidential campaign,” Mr. Elleithee said.

Mr. Gingrich has used his air time to deflect criticism from his rivals and hammer the policies of President Obama.

On the debate stage, Mr. Gingrich has developed a reputation for pooh-poohing moderators for “absurd” or “gotcha” questions, as well as their attempts to maximize the “bickering” between candidates.

The news media, he has said, doesn’t have “a clue about history” and doesn’t report “accurately how the economy works.”

Mr. Elleithee said it is ironic that Mr. Gingrich has spent so much time knocking the press.

“Instead of beating up on the press, Gingrich ought to be sending them thank-you notes,” Mr. Elleithee said.

Mr. Gingrich still lags well behind Mitt Romney and Rick Perry in fundraising. Both men entered the final quarter of the year with more than $14 million in their campaign coffers and have recently begun dumping funds into paid advertisements in Iowa and New Hampshire.

That might not matter in this GOP showdown, Mr. McKinnon said.

“Free media absolutely overwhelms paid advertising in presidential campaigns,” Mr. McKinnon said. Story lines and agendas, he said, are set by the news media and debates. “People pay close attention to presidential contests in a way they don’t to any other elections. They are not easily persuaded by paid messages. So, just because you’ve got a lot of money, or don’t have any money, doesn’t mean you are necessarily in or out of the game in a presidential contest.”

Mr. Gingrich is apparently banking on that notion.

In a private meeting with dozens of conservative leaders in Northern Virginia last week, Mr. Gingrich was asked about his plans for beating Mr. Obama, who raised more than $700 million in his first presidential campaign.

According to those in attendance, he said he would follow the president around speech-by-speech, replying with speeches of his own and demanding that Mr. Obama face him in Lincoln-Douglas debates - a challenge that has become a crowd-pleasing staple of the Gingrich stump speech.

Mr. Obama, the ever-confident former speaker says, can even use a teleprompter.

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