Last week was not the first time Newt Gingrich has gone ballistic over the media’s interest in his private life, but never before has he achieved the sort of afterburn which propelled him into his huge win Saturday in the South Carolina Republican Presidential Primary.

On the day the Republicans, under his leadership, won control of the U.S. House in 1994, Gingrich is said to have been so infuriated by a Mike Lukovich cartoon which referenced his first divorce that he dented the ceiling panel of the car he was sitting in when he saw it. Whether that story is true or not, it’s a fact that Gingrich demanded an apology from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and refused to have any contact with the local paper, until practicality and the indefatigable Jeanne Cummings wore him down, weeks into his term as speaker.

So even if CNN debate moderator John King’s lead-off question about accusations made by Gingrich’s second wife was, as Karl Rove suggested afterwards, the greatest gift he could have given the Republican candidate, Gingrich’s outrage was likely genuine. And before there’s much more speculation as to how this plays into his propects for the nomination, it should be said that he had a point.

Under the old rules of engagement, it would have been considered a journalistic transgression to pop a story on a candidate like last Thursday’s Nightline interview with Marianne Gingrich less than two days before an election, because the candidate wouldn’t have a fair chance to respond.

Of course just the opposite happened in the supercharged environment of this year’s GOP nomination battle, with its twice-a-week debates and endless streaming media coverage. Gingrich was able to offer his impassioned response before the interview aired, and in prime time also. But that doesn’t make the timing of the Nightline segment (not the segment itself, to be clear) any less questionable.

Helpful as it may have been to Gingrich, it was cheesy to lead off the CNN debate by piling on with the Marianne question, but it was also inevitable.

Having a lot of debates is a good idea, but the way in which presidential primary debates have come to be conducted – cable networks “teaming” with political organizations or new media companies to stage hyped-up confrontations on huge, overlit sets – bears unfavorable comparison with reality television.

It’s like an excrutiatingly slow version of “Chopped,” in which the chefs don’t drop out until long after they’ve cooked up their fatal dish. As with the reality shows, the pressure to go too far in the attempt to dramatize and personalize becomes intense.

Based on the timing of the two debates, my hunch is that Gingrich owes an even bigger debt to Fox News’ Juan Williams for questioning the sensitivity of his proposal that inner-city kids be given school janitorial jobs. Both questions struck deep cultural and racial chords with the audience, even as Romney took votes away from himself with his fumbling answers on his tax returns. South Carolinians, as much as people anywhere, love to see somebody tell someone else off.

Republican presidential nomination battles almost never vary from a predictable pattern: An establishment candidate, whose turn it is to get the nomination, fends off a more conservative and generally more colorful challenger in what is usually less of a real contest than it was trumped up to be. In the sense that Ronald Reagan was to the right of George W. Bush in 1980, that nomination battle can be seen as the exception to the rule, but on the other hand it was Reagan’s turn because of his challenge to President Gerald Ford four years before. It was just that in that year, the moderate spearheaded the ineffectual challenge against a frontrunning conservative.

Though the comparison wouldn’t spring to most Republicans’ minds, Romney is somewhat like the pre-Reagan Reagan: governor of a suspect state, whatever his personal politics, and culturally distant for all his folksy attempts. The moment which changed that perception as much as any came during a debate, paid for by Reagan, when a New Hampshire editor threatened to put him on mute and Reagan angrily replied: “I paid for this microphone, Mr. Green!” He was rich, people seemed to conclude, but he was real.

Romney has desperately needed a Mr. Green moment, but instead he let Gingrich pull off two of them in a row. As a result, next week’s Florida primary is going to be a lot more interesting than it would have been.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern...

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