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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Not too long ago, Newt Gingrich was once written off as a footnote in the Republican presidential primaries. Now polls show the former speaker of the House is among the leaders. And that rise in the polls is bringing more scrutiny. Gingrich is on the defensive after reportedly receiving payments of more than a million dollars in the last decade from mortgage giant Freddie Mac. Still, NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik reports Gingrich may have found his voice by turning the tables on the political press.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Republicans presidential aspirants have been knocking the media as a campaign tactic quite explicitly at least since Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew in 1968. In Newt Gingrich's case, it was a strategy masquerading as a tactic, adopted over the summer at a time of desperation. Former Gingrich aide Rich Galen points back to August.

RICH GALEN: Well, the first time I think he did it was at the Iowa straw poll debate, and it got a huge roar.

FOLKENFLIK: Moderator Chris Wallace of the Fox News Channel walked right into this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

CHRIS WALLACE: They said that you were undisciplined in campaigning and fundraising, and at last report you're a million dollars in debt. How do you respond to people who say that your campaign has been a mess so far?

NEWT GINGRICH: Well, let me say, first of all, Chris, that I took seriously Bret's injunction to put aside the talking points, and I wish you would put aside the gotcha questions.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

FOLKENFLIK: Soon enough, Gingrich took another swipe.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

GINGRICH: I'd love to see the rest of tonight's debate asking us about what we would do to lead an America whose president has failed to lead, instead of playing Mickey Mouse games.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

GALEN: That is probably the single most important reason that he has been able to restart his campaign.

FOLKENFLIK: Rich Galen was a top message guy for Gingrich in the 1990s. He now writes an online column at Mullings.com.

GALEN: He was able to get the crowd behind him in the arena, get the crowd behind him in living rooms around the country, because you can't go very far wrong attacking the media in front of a Republican audience, whether it's true or not.

FOLKENFLIK: Donors sent checks that revived his campaign. And so during an MSNBC/Politico debate, Gingrich gave moderator John Harris the Heisman.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

JOHN HARRIS: Speaker Gingrich, it sounds like we've got a genuine philosophical disagreement. In Massachusetts, a mandate, almost no one uninsured. In Texas, a more limited approach, about a quarter uninsured. Who's got the better end of this argument?

GINGRICH: Well, I'm frankly not interested in your effort to get Republicans fighting each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FOLKENFLIK: Shot at media? Check. Deflecting the pointed question? Yup. Disarming his rivals with praise? Sure thing. Answering the broader question he would've preferred? Got that too. And so Gingrich, a former professor of history, lectured Harris once again.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

GINGRICH: I for one, and I hope all of my friends up here, are going to repudiate every effort of the news media to get Republicans to fight each other to protect Barack Obama, who deserves to be defeated. And all of us are committed as a team. Whoever the nominee is, we are all for defeating Barack Obama.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

FOLKENFLIK: Never mind that such debates are worthwhile precisely because they can help primary voters make distinctions among various candidates. John Harris is Politico's editor-in-chief. He says he didn't make much of the exchange in the moment.

HARRIS: Then I got off the stage. Everyone said, whoa, you and Gingrich really went at it. I do think there's something about the setting that makes these things appear more dramatic than maybe they feel.

FOLKENFLIK: The fireworks being the point of the exercise.

HARRIS: That's a pretty good assigned role for somebody who at the time he started this was at the back of the back. I'm not sure that it's sufficient if he wants to remain at the front of the pack and wants to emerge, as he clearly does, as the chief alternative to Mitt Romney.

FOLKENFLIK: By his own admission, Gingrich was a quite calculatedly rhetorical bomb-thrower in his early pursuit of power in the House two decades ago. Now he wants to be seen as the grown-up in the room, a big thinker, and so last week Gingrich once again praised the others candidates and focused on a familiar target.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

GINGRICH: I just want to point out, my colleagues have done a terrific job of answering an absurd question.

FOLKENFLIK: In this case, Maria Bartiromo at the CNBC debate.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

GINGRICH: And it's sad that the news media doesn't report accurately how the economy works.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

FOLKENFLIK: So Gingrich has all the moves of the fourth-estate two-step down. Now, Galen says, Gingrich needs to convince Republican voters they like the answers they hear, not just the fancy footwork they see.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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