Newt Gingrich didn’t like the questions that Politico’s John Harris was asking him and his fellow Republican presidential hopefuls about 25 minutes into tonight’s NBC/Politico debate among GOP presidential candidates. Harris was poking around on the question of health-care reform, trying to find seams and divides among the candidates.

After a few rounds, he got around to Gingrich with a pointed question. And like the great Washington veteran that he is, Gingrich knew just how to handle the incoming fire.

“Frankly, I’m not interested in your effort to get Republicans fighting each other” over health care. Cue the laughter and applause from the crowd in the Reagan Library.

Then a slight pause, and Gingrich continued:

“I will repudiate every effort of the news media to get Republicans fighting one another” over the issue in a way that takes the spotlight off of President Obama.

Cue an eruption — hoots and hollers and applause. Though the in-house audience is infinitesimal compared with the national TV audience, its reaction to the candidates’ statements determines debate winners and losers.

Yes, other candidates to that point had gotten some crowd reaction via jokes and assertions of bold conservatism. But Gingrich knew something that the others hadn’t realized: Talking about the nitty-gritty of individual mandates (Mitt Romney) and whether an executive order would be a sufficient measure to roll back the Obama health-care reform (Michele Bachmann) doesn’t rock a crowd. Those lines of discussion turn off an audience.

Yet everyone has either had an unpleasant brush with the media or knows someone who has. These people are sitting there just waiting for candidates to light up reporters and editors and anchors. Political consultants take note: When the issue gets too complicated, attack the media!