Gingrich aims to regain his voice on talk radio

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Newt Gingrich works the crowd in Woodstock, in his home state of Georgia, where his presidential campaign needs a victory in Tuesday's primary. (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

WOODSTOCK, Ga. - Basking in the Georgia sun and the adoration of a hometown crowd, Newt Gingrich explained to a rally of supporters Thursday that President Obama is raising gas prices, appeasing Muslim enemies, and waging war on the Catholic Church.

Moments before that, the Republican presidential candidate said essentially the same thing, but the audience may have been more significant. He was a guest on a conservative radio show hosted by his former campaign rival Herman Cain.

As Gingrich fights for a desperately needed primary victory on Super Tuesday next week in the state he represented in Congress, he is hoping to build new support in part by working an old medium that remains relevant in presidential politics.

Cain, who has endorsed him, will host the radio show through Friday, and a pro-Gingrich super-PAC ad now on the airwaves features a mother calling a fake radio show to say she believes in Gingrich. At Gingrich rallies, supporter after supporter reported being an avid talk-radio listener. One woman said she listens to it all day, every day.

Conservative radio is still the beating heart of the right as it pumps the faithful with information and inspiration this GOP primary season. That's why all the Republican candidates do regular radio interviews and seek endorsements from hosts.

But Gingrich's reliance on the format is deep in Georgia, where he said he needs to win to stay "credible" in the four-way race for the GOP nomination. While his fortunes in the race have fallen since his Jan. 21 South Carolina victory, the latest poll has him with a double-digit lead in this state.

Georgians have been hearing Gingrich on the radio for years, and his speaking style - explanatory, statistics-driven, occasionally humorous - is similar to the style of a talk-radio host.

"What's important about radio is it's personal - there's a camaraderie," said Martha Zoller, a Georgia radio host who is running for Congress.

"If they hear me talking to Newt on the radio and see me later at the grocery store, they feel like they talked to Newt. It's the answer to the liberal media. It's the antidote."

Although conservative radio voices and Republican politicians are sometimes at odds, the entities often have common talking points and, as with Cain, personalities. A 2007 analysis by the liberal Center for American Progress found that the news/talk format reaches 50 million American listeners each week - and 91 percent of the programming is conservative.

Gingrich would love to reach as many of those listeners as often as possible. Georgia is one of 10 states that have Republican presidential contests Tuesday, and in Gingrich's Southern strategy, he wins Georgia before moving to nearby states in weeks to come. If he loses Georgia, it is unclear if Gingrich will have the money or the will to continue.

So recently, the former House speaker has become increasingly aggressive against the two leading candidates, Mitt Romney ("Massachusetts moderate baloney") and Rick Santorum ("Pennsylvania big labor baloney").

But his favorite target is Obama, which Gingrich fans relish. He tends to jab the president with a joke, as when he said Thursday to laughter from hundreds attending a Cobb County Chamber of Commerce breakfast: Obama is "an incompetent radical - you can't be both."

Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication has studied the influence of the king of conservative talk, Rush Limbaugh, and she says humor is a conservative radio hallmark.

And the information on the radio, sans the commentary, is largely accurate, she said. Listeners are as knowledgeable as network news watchers, according to her analysis.

"You can't sustain anger for three hours," she said. "There's humor, there's a lot of substantive information."

Like a talk-show host, Gingrich enjoys a good verbal scrap, and he has a captivating approach to the English language that gives an air of intelligence, such as when he uses the phase deliciously outrageous.

And like the big radio personalities, Gingrich is unabashedly egotistical. He began one sentence this week with: "Because I am a visionary, let me point out to you . . ."

Most often, though, Gingrich talks tough. He wants to produce enough energy domestically so "no American president ever again bows to a Saudi king."

"Where I favor strength in the world, he favors weakness, apologies, and appeasement," Gingrich said of the president.

Gingrich blasted Obama this week for an unwillingness to drill for oil domestically, and he promised that if he becomes president, gas will drop to $2.50 per gallon or below. Posters - and a new image on his campaign bus of a gas tank with $2.50 on it - reinforce that message.

Skeptics note that the president has limited influence on gas prices, and environmentalists say that the kind of drilling Gingrich advocates for would be ruinous to the earth, water, and air.

Gingrich, who in 2008 did a TV ad about the need to address climate change, no longer brings up that topic, which is taboo among conservatives.

But he does speak of impending doom - a theme common on the radio. "We were all shaken by 3,100 dead on 9/11. Add two zeroes. That's a nuclear weapon: 300,000 dead, 500,000 wounded," he said Wednesday.

Just as radio hosts cite statistics, Gingrich rattles off the number of gallons of oil that could be available if Obama would allow drilling. A long Gingrich dissertation on the need to drill could easily be transferred to the radio for an opening monologue.

"We relate to his style; we feel like he's our professor," said Natalie Sarvis, a Republican and conservative-radio fan who attended a Gingrich rally in Gainesville on Wednesday with her husband and three daughters.

Added her husband, Dennis: "He teaches as he's explaining it."

Disdain for the liberal, mainstream media is a common link between talk radio and Gingrich speeches. In just one speech, Gingrich criticized the media three times as reporters in the back of the room - accustomed to the attacks - did not blink. He says reporters are "trapped in mindless repetition" or have "amnesia."

"I think he's strong, and I think that's why the media doesn't like him," said Judith Hunter, 40, who was holding a "Don't Believe the Liberal Media" placard distributed at the Gainesville rally.

Hunter acknowledged that she "doesn't know enough" about mainstream-media bias because she gets all her news from talk radio. But the fact that Romney dominates the coverage indicates a slant, she said.

Also at the rally was Gingrich fan Debbie Schier, 61, who voted for Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992. She changed her mind about Clinton shortly thereafter.

That's about the time when Gingrich swept in a Republican takeover of Congress - and when conservatives came to dominate talk radio.

 


Contact Matt Katz

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