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GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has been trying to set himself apart in the race with his tone. He vows a positive campaign, no attack ads. But the former House speaker has a reputation when it comes to political style. At times, professorial. At times, confrontational.
NPR's Kathy Lohr has been following Gingrich in the Midwest and the South, and she reports on the candidate's evolving style.
KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: Gingrich is described as an experienced politician, an intellectual, and the smartest person in the room. On the other hand, critics say he's arrogant, undisciplined, too much of a thinker with too many ideas. On the trail, the former history professor has a tendency to lecture audiences, like here before a packed crowd in Newberry, South Carolina.
NEWT GINGRICH: For people who talk about how you have to have simple-minded short campaigns with 30-second attack ads, remember, the Federalist Papers are written so the American people understand the Constitution they're about to vote on.
LOHR: Contrast that with this week's appearance at a Hy-Vee grocery store in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, where Gingrich seemed to revel in the onslaught of attack ads against him, and was more at ease with crowds of voters.
GINGRICH: People used to yell at Harry Truman: Give them hell, Harry. And he'd always say, I just tell the truth and it feels like hell.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
JOHN STINEMAN: He's an inspirational speaker. He's one of those handful of Republican leaders that can really articulate the message in an inspirational way.
LOHR: John Stineman is a GOP strategist in Des Moines. He says Gingrich does better speaking to a large audience than he does going one-on-one with voters.
STINEMAN: Trouble is that when he does have to address more pointed questions and respond to the press, or respond to a heckler, he can be a little bit acerbic and that doesn't necessarily play well in the room.
LOHR: But Stineman says Gingrich is improving. This week, Gingrich took a tough question from a woman about his perceived arrogance.
GINGRICH: Yes, ma'am.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You did an ABC interview where you said I'm going to be the nominee. I have been for you. I've been a big fan, but that felt a little bit presumptuous.
LOHR: Gingrich admitted to her and everyone in the audience it was a mistake.
GINGRICH: The truth is, this will be decided by the American people. This will not be decided by any one person and that's what I should have said. And I wasn't very clever.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I appreciate you actually saying it was a mistake. Nobody ever says that.
GINGRICH: I make mistakes. I have made mistakes. When I make mistakes, I'll say to you, that was a boo-boo. OK.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LOHR: Later that day, at a coffee house in Oskaloosa, Iowa, another voter, Democrat Scott Arnold, asked the former speaker about his opposition to same-sex marriage. At first, Gingrich replied if voters care about jobs and national security, he'll get their support. And here's what happened when Gingrich was pushed further.
SCOTT ARNOLD: How do we engage with your election? Then what? What does that mean?
GINGRICH: Well, you can engage on every topic except that.
ARNOLD: OK. So...
GINGRICH: I mean, you know...
ARNOLD: ...except the one that's most important.
GINGRICH: Well, if that's the most important to you...
ARNOLD: It's not many millions of people.
GINGRICH: Well, if that's the most important to you, then you should be for Obama.
GINGRICH: I think that's perfectly legitimate.
ARNOLD: I am, but thank you.
LOHR: Arnold wouldn't back Gingrich anyway. But the former speaker did show more patience and didn't just dismiss him.
Many GOP voters who came to see Gingrich this week are largely supportive, like real estate agent Michelle Purdum.
MICHELLE PURDUM: I like his honesty. I really am hopeful that not only he, but all the candidates, can keep it as clean as possible.
LOHR: Well, you mean there are already these negative ads. You've seen them?
PURDUM: I'm not a huge proponent of that. To me, a candidate's actions need to speak louder than their words.
LOHR: Gingrich is betting the majority of Iowa voters are turned off by the attacks from GOP rival Ron Paul and from the super PAC that supports former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. The campaign just released this soft Christmas ad, featuring Gingrich and his wife Callista.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
CALLISTA GINGRICH: Is there anything more inspiring than American towns and neighborhoods brightly lit for the holidays?
GINGRICH: We take it as a sign of great optimism. It reminds us of the fire of freedom that burns bright in the America we love.
LOHR: Many in Iowa say they're torn over which GOP candidate to support. Gingrich is hoping his efforts to keep it positive will get these voters to come his way.
Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Des Moines.
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