by David Madrid – Oct. 20, 2011 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic

A day after what many said was his strongest debate performance of the season, GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich came to Phoenix, where he drew a standing-room-only crowd to hear him criticize the tenor of the campaign and make his case for his candidacy.

Gingrich, 68, was both entertaining and professorial, at times lapsing into history lessons. The more than 500 supporters from various Republican, abortion-opposition and “tea-party” organizations reacted positively to his style.

“We’re at a great crossroads of American history,” he said to the raucous crowd that gave him a standing ovation when he entered the banquet room at the Radisson Phoenix City Center.

Gingrich said he is gaining ground on his Republican opponents, saying he wasn’t jumping ahead in the polls, but he would walk ahead of the field to gain the nomination.

He is running with about 8.3 percent of the support in the polls, neck to neck with Ron Paul, but behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former pizza company CEO Herman Cain, who leads the pack, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry who is running third.

He decried the “bickering” among his fellow GOP candidates at the Tuesday debate in Las Vegas, accusing some of acting like seventh-graders. He said it is OK to ask Herman Cain and himself hard questions, but the debate went beyond that.

“The bickering last night was very harmful,” he said.

Gingrich, 68, a former Speaker of the House, is best known as the architect of the Contract with America, a list of policy goals that is widely recognized as sparking the Republican Revolution that ended 40 years of Democratic control of Congress in 1994.

But Gingrich resigned his speakership and his congressional seat after Republicans, under his leadership, lost the House in 1998. Some blamed his bombastic and confrontational style, which at one point led to a government shutdown, for the election losses.

Margaret Kenski, a Tucson pollster who primarily polls Republicans and their issues, said Wednesday that Gingrich has a useful role in the race.

Kenski doesn’t believe he can win the nomination, but she said Gingrich adds intellectual firepower to the group of candidates seeking the Republican nomination.

“I think he’s one of the brightest people running,” she said. “I think he can ask very interesting questions of the other candidates. I think he has a little more whip than some do, and he is not as ideologically rigid as say, Ron Paul.”

Gingrich said one of the first things he would do as president is kill President Barack Obama’s health-care act. In a meeting with reporters before the speech, he said that every American should be able to obtain health care, though he didn’t specify how he would make the happen.

Gingrich challenged the president to seven Lincoln-Douglas style three-hour debates, which garnered him the largest ovation of the evening.

“I’m prepared to do to Obama what Lincoln did to Douglas,” he said.

“If he wants to, he can bring a TelePrompTer,” Gingrich said.

Chuck Deeg, 61, of Glendale, said Gingrich is the best candidate in the Republican field. He said Gingrich would defeat Obama in a debate because of Gingrich’s command of the issues.

“He (Gingrich) would annihilate him,” he said of a debate with the president.

Deeg said Gingrich was the only candidate to follow the Reagan rule of not speaking badly of other Republicans.

Bernie Comeau, 67, of Gilbert said that the candidate jumped in his estimation after hearing him talk.

“Newt is a man of action. He’s done this before,” Comeau said of the candidate’s time in government.

Kenski said the candidates are being too careful to avoid making mistakes, but not Gingrich. She said both Gingrich and Cain are being themselves and aren’t afraid to say what’s on their minds.

Gingrich is proposing a new 21st Century Contract with America that he says must be created with the input of Americans.

Kenski said the phrase Contract with America doesn’t play well with voters.

She also noted the personal baggage that Gingrich carries: his three marriages, an extramarital affair while leading the impeachment of President Bill Clinton for an affair in the White House, his wife, Callista, running up a quarter to half-million dollar debt at jeweler Tiffany’s and a vacation to Europe in the midst of the campaign that in part led to a series of campaign-staff departures.

Gingrich addressed his personal baggage, saying that although he has been divorced twice and has had difficulties in life, he is a good father and grandfather and he is wiser and more mature.

The town-hall event was hosted by Any Street Arizona, the Fountain Hills AZ Tea Party, the Daisy Mountain Tea Party Patriots, the Greater Phoenix Tea Party Patriots and the Arizona Republican Party.

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