Republican presidential candidates from left, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman arrive for a Republican presidential debate in Sioux City, Iowa, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011. (Chris Carlson/AP)

It takes a lot to get Michele Bachmann to play the gender card. But we all have limits, and Bachmann hit hers in Thursday’s GOP presidential debate, when her rival Newt Gingrich sneered – and you really have to watch this to get the full effect -- “Sometimes Congressman Bachmann doesn’t get her facts very accurate.’’

Normally cool in these outings, an affronted Bachmann had had enough, and demanded the chance for a rebuttal: “Because this isn’t just once; I think it’s outrageous to continue to say over and over through the debate that I don’t have my facts right. When as a matter of fact, I do. I’m a serious candidate for president of the United States. ’’

Setting aside for a minute the wisdom of ever proclaiming oneself a serious anything, 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.”

Maybe women are a little more sensitive to tone, or so my husband says. (And it’s true that I can’t remember a man ever insisting, “It’s not what you said; it’s how you said it.”)

But it wasn’t only women who noticed this dynamic between Gingrich and Bachmann.

On Friday’s “Morning Joe,’’ on MSNBC, host Joe Scarborough, who’s had his own problems with the former House speaker, noted that “Newt Gingrich, when he attacks Michele Bachmann, sort of speaks in a different tone and is far more condescending to Michele Bachmann than he is the men on the stage.’’

Former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, a guest on the show, chimed in that when Bachmann pushed back, his own reaction was, “You go, girl. I tweeted that out.”

Of course, the most damaging debate moments are those that reinforce a preexisting weakness, real or perceived. And I’d been wondering how Gingrich would do with women voters long before my daughter came home from school saying that in the mock Republican debate and caucus in her 10th-grade government class, Gingrich got no votes at all from the girls, who reportedly reasoned that “three wives is too many.”

But, does Gingrich really have a problem with women voters? Not much of one, according to polling; the more accurate way to look at it would be to say that he does better with men. A recent Gallup Poll showed him with 37 percent support from men and 28 percent from women – but that’s still more women than support the once-married Romney, who runs about evenly with women and men, with 24 percent support from women and 22 percent from men.

In a Washington Post poll that specifically asked likely Iowa caucus-goers whether Gingrich’s marital history was a major reason to oppose him, only 18 percent of women said yes, and 15 percent of men. (By contrast, 45 percent of likely caucus-goers said health-care reform in Massachusetts was a major reason to oppose Romney.)

Still, now that Bachmann has raised the issue, “basically saying he was being condescending to her as a woman,’’ as Scarborough put it, Gingrich might want to think about avoiding the impression he’s doing that — yes, even while she’s hitting him on everything from his past indifference to the abortion issue to Gingrich’s work for Freddie Mac.

On Friday, Gingrich’s team did just the opposite, and may have insulted Bachmann further when his ‘upstate regional director’ in South Carolina sent out a video clip called, “2008 Flashback: Michele Bachmann gushes over Newt Gingrich.”

And despite lagging in the polls, you can’t say Bachmann doesn’t know how to engage the current frontrunner.

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