Gingrich, the Firebrand Statesman

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You're looking less mouthy these days,” an elderly woman told Gingrich when he was signing books in Manchester, New Hampshire.

"You're right,” he said. “I'm working on that.”

The exchange was 13 years ago, according to an article in The New Republic at the time. Gingrich was in town on his book tour for a hardcover mea culpa called Lessons Learned the Hard Way: A Personal Report.

Four presidential campaign cycles later, Gingrich is still working on it, and as he tries to cement his surge in national polls and in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida, the balance he's trying to strike has never been more delicate. He has to be both statesman and firebrand – the serious candidate with the anti-Romney bonafides and the chops not to squander his opening in the polls.

At two back-to-back stops in New Hampshire on Monday, Gingrich attempted to thread that needle with just enough substance.  

The first appearance was a so-called Lincoln-Douglas debate at Saint Anselm College, a New Hampshire political institution where the hallways are lined with photos of presidents paying their respects to Granite State voters. It was a joint appearance with former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, the left flank of the Republican field.

The second event was sponsored by a 9/12 group dedicated to constitutional liberty. This audience was more mixed than the academic gathering before it, with more sweatshirts among the sportcoats and wool sweaters.

At both, Gingrich's remarks were characterized by a sweeping and measured delivery. In the academic setting, he maintained his consistent tone, even as he raised the specter of Iran bombing Israel, a 'second holocaust' that could wipe out Judaism. In front of the town hall crowd, there was the occasional sprinkling of pointed zingers in the same serious deadpan tone.

He stressed to both audiences with by arguing that he's a different kind of candidate running a campaign that is at odds Washington playbook.

"All I can promise you is that I will do everything I can to keep this campaign positive, to keep focused on solutions,” Gingrich said at the town hall in Wyndham. “The choice of the president of the United States at a time of genuine troubles isn't a game. It isn't a clever maneuver. It isn't who can hire the meanest, nastiest, most creative consultant. It is a fundamental choice about who we think can provide the solutions and bring us together as a nation."

But even as he committed to a positive message, in the same speech, he joked about Obama's reliance on teleprompters and made a pointed reference to a recent $10,000 bet — a clear dig at Romney. So he is still Newt Gingrich, presenting himself as a statesman in one sense, but one who can land a punch. 

At the foreign policy debate, though, Gingrich downplayed that sense of fight. He and Huntsman largely agreed throughout their 90-minute conversation, Gingrich peppering his remarks with effusive praise for Huntsman's foreign policy expertise and experience, and even joked at one point that his talking had put Jon Huntsman's daughter to sleep. 

Gingrich also regularly stressed his experience in Washington before this crowd – mentioning meetings with Yitzak Rabin while he was in Congress, reading government Bush administration reports on weapons of mass destruction after the invasion of Iraq, serving on a task force that assessed the greatest threats to American security.

It all worked in an effort to shore up the impression that he is serious and seasoned and a candidate with the right disposition to be commander in chief.

"There's a real question,” he said at one point about U.S. Policy in Afghanistan, “whether we're in the business ultimately of having a transactional relationship with an Afghan government, whose president finds it advantageous to occasionally attack us, in order to float on top the tribes, or whether we're in the business of modernity, which will ultimately break down the tribes."

Gingrich dialed back his professorial approach a few hours later at the town hall. The shift was marked by his choice of words – Hillary Clinton meeting with “bigoted groups of Islamists.” The president as “apologist in chief.” Advocating for “wealth creation, not wealth redistribution.”

At both events, he talked about the need to confront radical Islam more directly. at the event with Huntsman, Gingrich referred to what seems like willful denial that it exists. But at the town hall gathering, he gave a more pointed answer when a questioner asked if Sharia law threatened Christians in the US. 

"If you believe in Christianity, or for that matter if you believe in Judaism, you have two different fronts,” Gingrich said. “You have secular bigots who are trying to drive you away from being able to publicly discussing God, and then you have the spread of Islam and in particular radical Islamists, who want to impose Sharia.”

And the two audiences responded in turn to Gingrich's calibrated approaches. Voters streaming out of the debate with Huntsman called Gingrich brilliant and impressive, and their exchange remarkably civil.

"He's very even-keeled, or at least was here tonight,” said Linda Twomley, the head of the Nashua Area Federation of Republican Women. “I've seen him when he's been a little more jovial, especially when he's talking to the media. But other than that, I think he speaks very eloquently." 

Outside the event sponsored by the 9/12 group, a local conservative group, Joan Preble of Wyndham, New Hampshire, offered a different take. She had been struck by his sense of humor, and his forcefulness.

"He's not going to take any guff from anybody. apologize for anyone. He's not going to go apologize for our country,” she said. “Goodness, we don't need to be apologizing. We've helped everyone in the whole world."

Both women, then, found something to like. That's a key gain for Gingrich, as both of them are still deciding which Republican to support in the January 10 primary.