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Big-thinking Gingrich finds himself by focusing on the big picture

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Don’t call it a comeback, but Newt Gingrich is finding his niche as the debate season wears on. And it’s in a role he’s most comfortable with: elder statesman/lecturer.

As Texas Gov. Rick Perry stumbled in the last few debates and the rest of the GOP presidential field began attacking each other — climaxing with the battle royale on stage Tuesday night — Gingrich has quietly turned in some solid showings by playing the role of big-picture thinker that he has built his political career on.

Tuesday’s debate might have been his best performance yet. The former House speaker struck some very strong notes with his response on a question about the role that immigrants play in America and whether a candidate’s religion matters.

He also tried to focus criticisms of frontrunners Herman Cain and Mitt Romney on content rather than rhetoric.

When Gingrich was asked about Cain’s “9-9-9” tax plan, instead of berating it like a few other candidates on the stage, he credited Cain for coming forward with a bold proposal before suggesting that Cain may be over-simplifying things.

“There are much more complexities than Herman lets on,” Gingrich said. “When you get into details — like you pay it on a new product, you don’t pay it on an old product, et cetera — there’s a lot more detail here than he lets on.”

That response was indicative of what Gingrich is trying to do.

While the other candidates argue over the specifics of Cain’s “9-9-9 ” plan and go after each other on a more personal basis, Gingrich tried to place himself above it by suggesting – in a nice way – that Cain doesn’t have the whole picture.

Want to guess who does? The guy was presided over the U.S. House for four years.

In contrast to the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO and one-time Senate candidate, Gingrich is a former House speaker who has been talking policy for decades, and he is versed in just about anything the moderators can throw at him.

We saw the same thing when Romney’s health care plan came up.

Instead of attacking it as too similar to President Obama’s plan — as the other candidates heave repeatedly done — Gingrich set that comparison aside and tried to focus on how it grew the size of government.

“It’s not Obamacare, and that’s not a fair charge,” Gingrich said. “But your plan essentially is one more big-government, bureaucratic, high-cost system, which candidly could not have been done by any other state because no other state had a Medicare program as lavish as yours.”

Going after Romneycare for being a big-government idea rather than the model for Obama’s health care bill is a novel strategy. While it takes some of the simplicity out of the argument (and if Cain’s 9-9-9 plan tells us anything, it’s that voters want simplicity), that isn’t really what Gingrich is going for these days.

In fact, Gingrich is doing quite the opposite, playing up the complexities, playing to his biggest strength as a candidate, and hoping it pays dividends.

Gingrich weighed in on some issues that the rest of his opponents didn’t, including the debt-reduction “supercommittee” and acknowledging that Yucca Mountain may be the answer as a long-term storage spot for nuclear waste — not a popular position in Nevada, where the mountain is located.

Gingrich has also chastised debate moderators for trying to create dissension among the GOP candidates and urged his opponents to keep the focus on Obama — another example of him trying to look like the adult in the room while the other candidates try to talk over each other. (His campaign has played up these moments in a video recap of some of his best moments.)

As we noted above, voters tend toward simplicity, and having a high-minded conversation about policy isn’t always the best strategy for debating. But Gingrich doesn’t really know any other way. He’s working with what he’s got, and he’s coming off well.

We have yet to see any indication that it will work – and Gingrich’s high campaign debt and personal unfavorable ratings continue to hamper any effort he may to re-enter the top tier (though his numbers are getting better) – but Gingrich is making slow and steady progress at these debates toward recovering his good name.

And that’s progress.

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