- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 11, 2012

GOP presidential contender Newt Gingrich said that, given the current debate rules, he would refuse to take part in official commission-sponsored debates with President Obama, and instead proposed to face-off in a combat-style debate in front of thousands.

“Why don’t we have a debate in large arena with a 100,000 people?” Mr. Gingrich said during a meeting with editors and reporters of The Washington Times on Friday, after his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “He can have half and I can have half, and we’ll let them actually express themselves. It will be kind of fun. It will be like an old-time campaign, and the American people get to have something to say about it.”

The former House speaker has thrived on the debate stage, where he’s won free media and standing ovations from crowds by angrily denouncing moderators and the policies of the Obama administration.

Mr. Gingrich’s last two performances, though, have been poorly reviewed. And he’s pinned some of the blame on NBC moderator Brian Williams’ request that a debate audience in Tampa withhold applause, “to ensure this is about the four candidates here tonight and what they have to say.”

As a result, the Georgia Republican has threatened to skip future debates if the attendees are asked to remain silent, arguing that it amounts to a stifling of free speech. But that puts him at odds with the commission of presidential debates, which has not allowed audience participation in past general election debates and plans to stick by those rules in the three debates that are penciled in for the fall.

Asked if he’d take part in commission-governed debate with no crowd participation, Mr. Gingrich said, “No.”

“Why would you pay any attention to them? Why would you assume some self-appointed group gets to define for the United States the terms for which we get to pick a president?” he said.

Then he floated the idea of challenging Mr. Obama to a debate “without those guys being in charge.”

“The American people, I think you’ll find, regard the idea that some elite group in Washington has decided they can’t applaud as a sign of how sick the establishment is,” he said.

Mr. Gingrich has had an up-and-down campaign.

Left for dead following a campaign shakeup earlier in the year, he came back to life in late November, grabbing front-runner status in many polls. He lost badly in the Iowa and New Hampshire contests and then won big in the South Carolina primary, where exit polls suggested his debate performances helped him win over a number of voters who made up their minds in the last few days before the election.

Since then, he’s stumbled, thanks in part to Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, who beat him up with negative television and radio ads on his way to winning the Florida primary. Mr. Romney also won the Nevada caucuses.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania followed that up with a stunning sweep in the Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri nomination contests on Tuesday. Texas Rep. Ron Paul, meanwhile, appears poised for a good showing in the Maine caucuses on Saturday.

A realclearpolitics.com average of polls also shows that compared to his three rivals Mr. Gingrich performs the poorest in a potential head-to-head general election matchup with Mr. Obama.

Still, he currently stands in second place in the GOP race in many national polls and on Friday he assured The Times that the same “power of ideas” that helped make him the “most effective conservative speaker in modern times” will power him through a nomination fight — a fight that he said could be settled on the convention floor.

“It is a long way from there to deciding the nomination,” he said, arguing that “bold ideas” are better for the country than the timid policies being laid out by his competitors, including Mr. Romney, who he said “has not proven any ability to be a genuine front-runner.”

“Romney is basically way too liberal for the Republican party, and he knows it, and that is why all his ads are negative. He can’t talk about his governorship, and I think there is a point here where people just get sick of it, and I think that it what you saw Tuesday,” he said.

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