In the world of sports, an enthusiastic crowd can energize and inspire a team, and it can deflate and intimidate an opponent. This is also true in politics, and Newt Gingrich is hoping to use the dynamic to his advantage at tonight's Republican presidential debate in Jacksonville, Florida.
Gingrich set the tone when he complained about the sound of silence at the last debate in Tampa Monday night. NBC moderator Brian Williams had insisted on quiet, and he got it. This deprived Gingrich of the chance to stir up the crowd and create the impression of momentum behind his campaign and his ideas.
Tonight will be different. CNN, the sponsor, says that moderator Wolf Blitzer will allow applause, although he will try to stop booing and other conduct deemed disrespectful or disruptive.
This is expected to work to Gingrich's advantage. He often resorts to angry attacks on the news media or indignant complaints that his rivals are making false charges against him--sometimes generating noisy ovations and raucous cheers. TV executives also argue that having a responsive crowd generates excitement and makes a debate more interesting to the viewing audience.
Gingrich, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, seemed off balance and lackluster at Monday night's debate, and one factor may have been the silence that greeted his intended applause lines. This kept the emotional level of the debate relatively low, a disadvantage to Gingrich, who thrives when emotions run high.
Afterward, Gingrich told Fox News, "The media doesn't control free speech. People ought to be allowed to applaud if they want to."
Tonight's debate will be the last showdown among the candidates before next Tuesday's Florida primary. Both Gingrich and his main rival for the GOP nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, are expected to continue the slashing tactics that have dominated their campaigning this week.
The other two candidates, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, are likely to go on the offensive against Gingrich and Romney in hopes of achieving a breakthrough and creating some buzz in the room.