The worse Newt Gingrich performs in the GOP presidential race, the more shrill becomes the Union Leader, the New Hampshire paper that not only endorsed him but then conspired to allowed him to take shots at former governor John Sununu under the guise of a “senior aide.” The latest contrived bugaboo for the Union Leader is Mitt Romney’s refusal to debate Gingrich one-on-one. Romney’s reasoning, repeated to me by his staff, is that there’s no reason to go up against one candidate, thereby disrespecting the entire field. Moreover, Gingrich isn’t in the lead in Iowa and today lost his lead in the national Gallup tracking poll (he’s tied with Romney at 25 percent).

But the Union Leader has howled twice about the refusal of Romney to elevate its pet candidate. On Dec. 23 the Union Leader whined, “With the exception of the rare media interview, the televised debates have been the venues most conducive to putting Romney on the spot. That’s to his liking because he has an array of well-prepared, brief answers. Answering any question in 30 or 60 seconds is easy if you’ve got a rehearsed answer at the ready. But how would he do in a format with, say, one other opponent, a format in which longer, less scripted responses must be given? This year’s debate-driven primary has not provided enough of those opportunities. But there is one available. Newt Gingrich has challenged Romney to a debate, just the two of them.”

So the Union Leader tried again, bashing Romney for receiving a semi-official endorsement from former president George H.W. Bush. The Union Leader groused today: “How fitting that Romney has now been endorsed by the elder Bush, whose own bland rhetoric and play-it-safe campaign were knocked for a loop by the bold colors and strong conservative philosophy of the Gipper. One wonders whether the Iron Curtain would have fallen if Bush’s ‘kinder, gentler conservatism’ had defeated Reagan’s ‘peace through strength’ in 1980.”

Publisher Joe McQuaid picked an awfully poor time to bring up the 1980 primary. That was the year of Ronald Reagan’s “I paid for this mike” moment in New Hampshire. On the front page of the Union Leader, its publisher attacked Bush (“Only a Bush leaguer” read the headline) for — you guessed it — insisting on a one-on-one debate with Ronald Reagan. Then, the Union Leader sneered at Bush, calling him a “poor sport” and chiding him for not joining in Reagan’s call to allow the other candidates on the stage. Then the guy insisting on the one-on-one debate was the “spoiled little rich kid”; now it’s Newt Gingrich. Or maybe that would that be Joe McQuaid. (The full editorial is posted online.)

NBC says that it is going forward with the all-candidate debate to be co-hosted by the Union Leader in New Hampshire. This is a travesty. The Union Leader has shown itself to be rapidly partisan and willing to cast off journalistic ethics to help its man Newt. Why not let Callista run the show? The Union Leader has thrown principle and impartiality to the winds. NBC should have the gumption to insist it not be party to a debate with a surrogate of one of the participants.