Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich, whose slight lead in Iowa polls makes him the candidate to beat in that state’s January caucuses, made headlines when he once again criticized “activist judges.” His latest condemnation drew criticism from members of his own party.

Amy Gardner and Matt DeLong reported Gingrich’s controversial comments on a Saturday conference call:

In a half-hour phone call with reporters Saturday, Gingrich said that, as president, he would abolish whole courts to be rid of judges whose decisions he feels are out of step with the country.

“Are we forced for a lifetime to keep someone on the bench who is so radically anti-American that they are a threat to the fabric of the country?” Gingrich asked. “What kind of judge says you’ll go to jail if the word ‘invocation’ is used? If this isn’t a speech dictatorship, I’d like you to show me what one looks like.”

The former House speaker Sunday showed no sign of letting up on his assault on such judges. During an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Gingrich suggested the president could send federal law enforcement authorities to arrest judges who make controversial rulings in order to compel them to justify their decisions before congressional hearings.

When host Bob Schieffer asked how he would force federal judges to comply with congressional subpoenas, Gingrich said he would send the U.S. Capitol Police or U.S. Marshals to arrest the judges and force them to testify.

Dan Balz analyzed the former speaker’s conference call in the context of Gingrich’s entire campaign, which struggled through early gaffes until the candidate reemerged as a serious contender for the GOP nomination.

The former speaker’s presidential campaign is now in its fourth and potentially decisive phase. The first stage was anticipation — the period from early this year until he finally entered the race for the Republican nomination. It was a time of stumbles and false starts.

The second was irrelevance, the long period that began with his attack on House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s Medicare proposal and his Greek cruise vacation and continued after his campaign imploded. Though Gingrich was in the campaign, he was rarely in the conversation — more a historical figure commenting from the sidelines than a contender.

The third was rebirth, which encompassed his surprising reemergence as a force in the debates, his sudden rise in the polls and his customary self-confidence in declaring that, in all likelihood, he would be the Republican nominee. His road back has been visible in his movement on the stage at the many Republican debates, from the wings where the also-rans have been relegated to the center spot reserved for the leader in the polls.

The fourth phase — testing — is now underway. It began in the past two weeks when his rivals, deciding he might be for real, began to attack him and the party elites who fear the possible consequences of his nomination also launched an assault. Collectively, those groups have raised questions about his conservatism, his consistency, his reliability, his stability, his fitness. Gingrich maintains that he will run a positive campaign, but he knows the power of attack politics, having made it a principal tool of his rise to power in the House.

Gingrich’s supporters hit back at criticism of the candidate, Amy Gardner reported:

An independent super PAC, Winning Our Future, launched an ad over the weekend to push back against the onslaught of negative TV ads and mail pieces targeting the Republican presidential front-runner that are inundating Iowa voters in the final two weeks before the Jan. 3 caucuses.

The ad defends Gingrich as a “proven conservative” and reminds voters of his alliance with Ronald Reagan and battles with Bill Clinton.

Gingrich is at a critical juncture in his campaign, with several leading opponents --- former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas -- targeting the former House speaker on the airwaves and in mailboxes. Among other things, the attacks portray Gingrich as not really a conservative and accuse him of switching his views on global warming and abortion.

Melinda Henneberger analyzed an interaction Gingrich had with Michele Bachmann in Thursday’s Iowa debate, asking “Does Newt Gingrich have a woman problem?”:

Gingrich might want to watch the perception that he’s particularly contemptuous of a female competitor.

Had Gingrich just pulled a Rick Lazio, following in the loutish footsteps of the former New York congressman who invaded Hillary Rodham Clinton’s space in a senatorial debate in their 2000 Senate race?

Patricia Murphy, who covers Congress for the Daily Beast, thinks it was actually even worse than that, because “instead of pushing and challenging her, he basically gave her a pat on the head and mouthed to the audience, ‘Don’t pay any attention; she’s a little slow.’’’

“He wouldn’t dare take that tone with any of the guys, even factually challenged Rick Perry,’’ agreed International Herald Tribune columnist Luisita Torregrosa. “Newt did it to her in the previous debate, but I saw no criticism raised by anyone in print or on cable, not even by his haters like Chris Matthews. “Which suggests that it’s OK to talk like that to a girl…But, no, it isn’t OK.”

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