NEW YORK (AP) — Forget the so-called liberal media. Right now Newt Gingrich's most ardent critics are conservative pundits and columnists, many of whom have launched aggressive campaigns to discredit him and trip up his run for the Republican nomination.
This crew has largely been lukewarm about Gingrich's chief rival, Mitt Romney, considering him too moderate. But their open criticism of Gingrich is evidence that for all their misgivings about the former Massachusetts governor, they see him as a much stronger contender against President Barack Obama.
To hear columnists Ann Coulter and Charles Krauthammer and the conservative media aggregator Matt Drudge tell it, Gingrich is an inconsistent conservative who didn't fully support President Ronald Reagan and whose undisciplined nature mirrored that of President Bill Clinton, who was Gingrich's Democratic adversary in the 1990s.
The conservative media hits against Gingrich have come with force just as the GOP establishment seems to be rallying around Romney in earnest, perhaps out of fear that Gingrich may end up winning the nomination.
On Thursday, Romney's campaign released a scathing open letter from the 1996 Republican presidential nominee, Bob Dole, who served as Senate Republican leader when Gingrich presided over the House. In the letter, Dole glowingly endorses Romney and repudiates Gingrich.
"If Gingrich is the nominee it will have an adverse impact on Republican candidates running for county, state, and federal offices," Dole wrote. "Hardly anyone who served with Newt in Congress has endorsed him and that fact speaks for itself. He was a one-man-band who rarely took advice. It was his way or the highway."
Jacob Heilbrunn, in the conservative-leaning magazine The National Interest, mused that Gingrich "is essentially bragging that his prime credential to become president is that he's willing to debate for hours and bring a knuckle-duster. This is evidence of his sober judgment? This is supposed to induce swing voters to back him?"
Conservative radio titan Rush Limbaugh also weighed in, seemingly to defend Gingrich from some of the attacks. But, in doing so, he also vividly outlined many of the critiques against Gingrich from other conservatives.
Conservatives "are raising questions here about Newt and his mendacity, his forthrightness — it's incredible," Limbaugh marveled on his show Thursday.
Gingrich stormed to a decisive win over Romney in the South Carolina primary last week fueled in part by two well-timed attacks on the news media. Both came during nationally televised debates, guaranteeing maximum exposure.
In a CNN debate, Gingrich pushed back at anchor John King when King questioned him about an interview Gingrich's second wife, Marianne, had given ABC News. In the interview, Marianne Gingrich suggested her husband had asked her for an open marriage so he could carry on with a mistress, Callista Bisek, now his third wife.
"I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that," Gingrich said. "I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans."
The audience rose in a standing ovation.
Gingrich also told King that his campaign had given ABC News the names of friends who would vouch for him but that the network had rejected the offer. On Wednesday, a Gingrich spokesman acknowledged that the claim was a mistake and that the campaign had offered only Gingrich's two adult daughters to defend him.
Gingrich drew raves at another Fox News debate before the South Carolina primary when asked about his oft-stated assertion that Obama is a "food stamp president." He angrily denied the statement had anything to do with race.
Mark Jurkowitz of the Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism said Gingrich had tapped into longstanding resentment of many conservatives against mainstream news outlets.
"Running against the elite media — we've seen now for a good 30 years — certainly has resonance among Republican base voters. In conservative circles, there's been the perception that the media are tilted against them," Jurkowitz said.
Brent Bozell, founder of the conservative Media Research Center, announced Thursday that his group was set to spend $5 million on an advertising campaign to expose media bias in the 2012 election.
"You have a left-leaning media that's out of control. You've got to corral them," Bozell said in a news briefing, promising radio ads, billboards and an "unprecedented" effort in social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook.
Gingrich, for his part, promised in his South Carolina victory speech to keep up his attacks on the media. But the hits he took this week while campaigning in Florida came from other conservatives.
By Thursday, Gingrich was disparaging the Commission on Presidential Debates, suggesting he might not participate in debates the commission organizes if he becomes the Republican nominee.
"We've had enough of newsmen deciding what the topics would be," Gingrich told supporters in Jacksonville, many of whom waved "Don't Believe the Liberal Media" signs.
Later, Gingrich was asked about the attacks from conservative pundits, particularly from the American Spectator's Emmett Tyrell, who wrote that Gingrich has had "private encounters with the fair sex that doubtless will come out."
Gingrich tried to turn such criticisms to his advantage, suggesting they represent "establishment" thinking.
"Tyrrell has to write whatever Tyrrell wants to write," Gingrich said. "There's the Washington establishment sitting around in a frenzy, having coffee, lunch and cocktail hour talking about, 'How do we stop Gingrich?'"
While Gingrich relishes bashing the media "elite" in public, he is friendly with the reporters who cover his campaign and makes himself available for media questions daily on the campaign trail. He seems to relish the back-and-forth with journalists, sometimes labeling questions he dislikes "bizarre."
At a campaign stop in South Carolina, he wished a reporter covering his campaign a happy birthday, and he typically stops by to chat with reporters at dinner after a day of campaigning.
Associated Press writers Brian Bakst in Jacksonville, Fla., and Shannon McCaffrey in Atlanta contributed to this report.
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