Newt Gingrich Was Born For “Crossfire”

As Newt’s campaign chief of staff in 2012, I watched the candidate destroy his opponents on debate stages across the country. An insider’s take on what makes Gingrich the best debater in politics today.

Carolyn Kaster, file / AP

When CNN’s revamped Crossfire debuts next month, co-host New Gingrich will finally have a chance to return to what he was born to do. No, not legislate, or take control of the nuclear launch codes, or begin construction on a lunar colony (though I personally think he’d be great in all those roles). Arguably, his greatest talent has always been dismantling his opponents from a debate podium — a skill he’ll use to carve up Van Jones and Stephanie Cutter on a daily basis.

As Newt’s campaign chief of staff during last year’s Republican primaries, I had a front row seat to how he prepared for his memorable performances.

In fact, Newt is always preparing. He reads everything he gets his hands on. But reading and study alone do not a great debater make. Just like a good football coach, he spends as much time thinking about where his opponents will strike hardest as he prepares defenses. During the campaign, we came into South Carolina prepared to talk about religious liberty and gun control. Instead, we were responding to the decision of the pro-Newt Super PAC to make Bain Capitol an issue. By the end of the week, we were told that ABC News was going to run a “tell all” interview with Newt’s ex-wife shortly before the primary. Our initial strategy was shot, and we knew it would change the dynamic of the CNN debate in South Carolina.

Other than an initial conversation between ABC News and our press secretary R.C. Hammond, the ABC interview was actually discussed relatively little within the campaign. I think we added a few events to include Newt’s daughters. We certainly didn’t change anything. Newt gave his speeches. Callista visited with children in a hospital. I am sure we had someone fact-checking the ABC interview, but that was a staff decision.

On the evening of the debate, Newt and I reviewed his tax returns that were going to be released that night and then he did what he always did before a debate — he took a nap. Once he got up and began getting ready, talking about the debate was off limits. It was game time and no one knew the game plan other than our candidate.

When Newt took the stage and John King made the very first question about Newt’s ex-wife’s allegations, you could feel the entire building tense up. I think the room where hundreds of reporters watched the debate on a big screen went completely silent — which was rare. By the time King had set up his question and asked Gingrich, “Would you like to take some time to respond to that?” no one on the campaign knew what was about to happen — except Newt.

He could have said a lot of things in that moment. But ever the savvy debater, he chose to lay into King for kicking off a presidential debate with what was, essentially, a tabloid story.

“I think 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,” he said. “And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.”

Television cameras caught the audience’s enthusiastic reaction to Newt’s response. What they didn’t capture was CNN’s entire behind-the-scenes crew react as though their quarterback had just been sacked so hard they can hear it. What Newt said wasn’t scripted, rehearsed, or planned as far as I know. But it was brilliant.

His reaction to the King question may be the single greatest example of why it is going to be so hard for Cutter and Jones to get any traction on Crossfire. The man is usually at his best the harder his opponents press. He speaks his mind, not in talking points and he rarely prepares remarks. Most of his speeches are given from the back of an envelope or some scrap of paper where he has written down a few key words to remind him of the topics he wants to discuss.

That said, he’s not immune from overconfidence. Admittedly, we probably went into Florida a bit cocky. The win in the South Carolina primary was wind in our sails. We knew Romney had us beat in terms of the money he was spending in Florida, but we all thought the debates were going to give us an opportunity to overcome the money.

But Romney was no slouch. Newt will be the first to tell you that he was not prepared for the Romney that showed up in the Florida debates. He came in stronger and better prepared than he had in any of the prior debates. He landed some rare oratorical blows. Let’s face it — Romney won those Florida debates.

Lesser candidates wither under that kind of loss. But Newt did not. I was on the plane with his closest advisors as we left a primary defeat in Florida heading to the western states. Newt strategized most of the night, reviewing the Florida defeat, and discussing how Romney had changed as a candidate and a debater. It was clear to me that he was not going to let anyone beat him again in a debate.

While Newt ultimately lost his bid for his party’s nomination, his debate performances will be remembered. I am told that a standing ovation has only been given in four Republican presidential primary debates since debates have been televised. Newt received two of them in the same week.

I hope Cutter and Jones read this because if they don’t, Crossfire could be a very boring show. Cutter is the queen of the talking point and Jones lives in the abstract world of academia. If they think that they will be able to hold their own against Newt for 30 minutes of live television with simple, snappy, liberal platitudes and snarky, rehearsed rejoinders, they will be humiliated on a regular basis.

I truly hope they rise to the challenge. This country could use some smart (and entertaining) discourse on the issues of the day. I promise Newt will hold up his end of the bargain.

Patrick Millsaps is a partner with the law firm of Hall Booth Smith and is a political commentator for several national networks. He is the former Chief of Staff to Newt Gingrich’s 2012 Presidential Campaign.

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