Newt Gingrich getting emotional during a town hall meeting in Des Moines last month. (C-SPAN)

Is Frank Luntz the Oprah of the 2012 GOP primary?

On Monday, moderating a forum in Myrtle Beach, S.C., the Republican strategist asked Rick Santorum’s wife how the candidate “dealt with the challenges” when their toddler daughter was born with a life-threatening ailment. Karen Santorum’s voice was cracking from the start. “It was a really hard time,” she said, sniffling. Seconds later, she was wiping tears. (see video, below)

Frank Luntz. (Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

A few weeks earlier, in Des Moines, it was Newt Gingrich. Luntz asked about his late mother: “What special moment comes to mind?” Gingrich swallowed hard and dabbed his cheek, recalling how his mom made him sing in the choir. In later years, he explained, she suffered from mental illness.

“My emphasis on brain sciences comes directly from. . .” His face crumpled in a suppressed sob. “See, I’m getting all emotional!”

“I apologize,” Luntz said. “I did not mean to put you through that.” (see video, below)

Yeah, right. The veteran messaging maven acknowledged to us Thursday that he’s got a knack for making the pols cry. Amid debates that he finds too policy-focused, “my job is to show the personal side of these candidates, and I’ve succeeded.”

Karen Santorum drying her eyes during a Luntz-moderated forum in Myrtle Beach on Monday. (C-SPAN)

He got Rick Perry weepy by asking what America and his wife mean to him. In a November forum, Luntz asked Herman Cain about a time he’d faced a challenge; Cain choked up recalling his cancer diagnosis. On the same stage, Rick Santorum melted when Luntz brought up his daughter’s illness. He hasn’t jerked tears from Mitt Romney or Ron Paul — but they haven’t sat for a Luntz forum yet. (He’d love to ask Romney about his wife’s MS battle and Paul about his son winning a Senate seat.)

What’s the trick? The question must focus on the candidate’s personal life, Luntz told us, “but it has to be completely unexpected. They’re used to getting abused in these debates. I take exactly the opposite approach.”

What would make Frank Luntz cry? A question about his parents: “My mother and father would be so proud if they were around now.” His mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease, would nag him about his shirttail sticking out, and his father — who died on the eve of the ’96 Iowa caucuses, the same day his boy made the front page of the Boston Globe — would have asked the candidates why they’re letting Frank badger them so.

Are you crying now, Frank? No, but only because he already answered that question for an intern. “As I was explaining to him, I got emotional.”

Read earlier: Frank Luntz and his Twitter imposter, 3/24/09

Frank Luntz leaves Washington for California, 7/17/08