Gingrich Turns on the Charm

Gingrich is turning away from attacks and instead just being his blunt, wonky self in seeking the nomination.

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Newt Gingrich is letting it all hang out.

With no clear path to the GOP nomination, the candidate of big ideas seems to be dialing back on attack mode and focusing on just being himself.

[Read Gingrich Looking for Hail Mary with Campaign Shakeup.]

At a Wednesday evening appearance before a crowd of around 400 at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., Gingrich didn't really sound like a man campaigning for president. Though he touched on the GOP race in his opener, Gingrich shied away from attacks on his opponents, instead taking on a more academic demeanor. His address veered wildly—ultimately focusing on private Social Security accounts, but at various points pivoting to school prayer, the Wright Brothers, and Chilean savings rates.

Taking questions from students also allowed Gingrich to show off his bluster.

He sniped back at a student from Spain who asked Gingrich to justify America's massive defense spending, even as millions of its citizens lack health insurance.

"Well, what do you think about a country with 20 percent unemployment?" responded Gingrich, referring to Spain's persistently high jobless rate. "I'm not trying to pick a fight. I'm just saying, let's be quite clear here. There are some huge problems. You know the No. 1 reason we spend so much on national defense? Because you don't."

He also engaged in a heated back-and-forth with a student who attacked Gingrich's proposal that poor students work as janitors in their schools. The student said he had worked as a janitor at his private high school to help out his single mother, and that it was "embarrassing."

"I'm sorry if you were offended. Both of my daughters worked as janitors," Gingrich said. "They didn't think it was demeaning."

The student shot back that Gingrich's daughters came from a wealthy background.

"I wasn't wealthy, I wasn't wealthy," responded Gingrich, going on to discuss student loans

While Gingrich may not have won that student's support, this kind of directness is attractive to some voters. "When someone says, 'I don't care about placating, I don't care about pandering to you, I just want to tell you about my ideas,' it has a ring of sincerity to it," says Kyle Scott, visiting assistant professor of political science at Duke University.

[Read Why is the Gingrich campaign antagonizing reporters?]

That attitude stands out in this election, says Scott, particularly when compared to the Republican frontrunner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whose shifting positions have led some voters to question his sincerity. "[Gingrich] is the antithesis of what Mitt Romney's trying to be," he says.

Of course, Gingrich needs more than his band of loyal supporters now. He is far behind his fellow candidates, with 135 delegates to Romney's 568 and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's 273. In addition, one of his most prominent supporters, wealthy casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, seems to be losing his enthusiasm.The Jewish Journal reported Wednesday that Adelson believes Gingrich is "at the end of his line." In recognition of the campaign's struggles, Gingrich this week fired one-third of his staff, streamlining the campaign to focus not on attacks but "ideas," with an eye toward the August Republican convention.

"The shift is not to degrade other candidates but to promote his ideas in hopes that party leaders and delegates will be swayed not by mudslinging but by ideas," says Scott. "He knows he's not going to be able to successfully attack any of the other potential nominees and be able to get votes from them. That's proven an ineffectual strategy."

Then again, positivity hasn't been terribly effective for Gingrich either. Earlier in the campaign, Gingrich had prided himself on refusing to respond to attack ads from his fellow candidates—a strategy that Gingrich acknowledged may have been wrongheaded. Now, with diminished financial resources and support, there seems to be little to lose and everything to gain for Gingrich. In what is sure to be more months of attacks from his fellow candidates, big ideas might be a welcome change for some voters.

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